Just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall, a series of pipeline explosions rocked the Boston area last night, killing one and maiming a dozen others. NiSource — the parent of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts — said the preliminary cause is “over-pressurization of a gas main.”
In other words, too much natural gas is getting pushed through an aging infrastructure, which raises a number of questions. For starters, natural gas is now the leading fuel used to generate electricity and a plethora of it exist in the form of shale gas deep underground. For the moment, forget about the fouling of drinking water supplies and methane leaks and consider just how safe is your community from these types of potentially deadly blasts.
About 2.4 million miles of pipelines criss-cross the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board says, with half of that installed before 1970. The state of today’s technology is superior to what it had been 50 years ago, and older pipelines are in need of an upgrade. On top of that, new pipelines will be needed to meet the demands of electricity consumers as natural gas’ share of that market continues to rise, up from 20% a decade ago to 34% today.
In the case of the blasts that occurred Thursday night, Columbia Gas said it was investigating the situation and that it had been in the process of modernizing the pipeline infrastructure in those towns near Boston. Footage on TV showed homes blowing up. State police said there were responding to about 70 calls tied to fires, explosions and potential leaks. It comes six years after another gas blowout by the same company in the same state — one that injured dozens and cost more than $1 million to repair.
The smoke there, literally, hasn’t cleared. But the National Transportation Safety Board says that the age of the underground lines is less important than whether they are getting adequately maintained. Current law requires that pipelines be inspected every seven years, although those located near population centers necessitate more frequent oversight.
Altogether, the risk of pipeline accidents has been steadily declining, says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Despite the increased use of energy, incidents involving death or major injury have fallen by about 10% every three years. The risks of hazardous liquid pipeline spills that do lots of ecological damage have also dropped by 5% a year.
That safety agency adds that 7% of the current lines are classified as “high consequence areas,” which means that people can be killed if accidents happen. They have to be inspected more often than every 7 years.
Transmission lines in less dense areas do not need to be inspected at all, emphasizes the Pipeline Safety Trust. It goes on to say that the national laws have too little teeth — that much more could be done to try and prevent the kinds of pipeline accidents that have occurred in recent years. The question then becomes how do regulators patrol such a vast network of pipelines and what is an operator’s role in ensuring that federal guidelines are met?
FactTracker Alliance counts 230 explosions between 2010 and 2016 that cost $3.4 billion in damages. Altogether, there were 470 injuries and 100 deaths. The total number of incidents were 4,215. Of those, equipment failure accounted for 1,438; corrosion failure made up 752 and, excavation damage was 406. Texas accounted for 1,102 and California made up 297.
It adds that the pipeline operators responsible for the most incidents resulting in death are Pacific Gas & Electric at 15, Washington Gas Light at 9, and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York at 8. The key variable, it notes, is population density and potential damages. It also says that companies sharing the Kinder Morgan name accounted 142 incidents — at 1.8 incidents per 100 miles; the company’s website says it owns 84,000 miles of pipeline.
Take the San Bruno, Calif., pipeline explosion that occurred exactly eight years ago this month: The National Transportation Safety Board assigned much of the blame on PG&E for the accident that took about eight lives and cost more than $1 billion. It said it had no methods in place to detect structural weaknesses in its pipeline and that it did not have shut-off valves to limit the explosion’s severity.
In January 2011, a cast-iron pipeline in Philadelphia blew up, killing one and injuring five. A month later, the same thing happened in Allentown, Pa. and five people died. Meanwhile, in December 2013, a gas pipeline blew up outside Charleston, W.V., several properties were damaged. In that case, the regulators said the line had not been inspected since 1988 and had attributed the cause to “corrosion.” In March 2014, a Consolidated Edison pipeline blew up, killing eight people and leveling two buildings.
Pipeline laws passed in 2011 require operators to use remote-control and automatic shut-off values. They must also verify their records and maintain adequate pressure for the natural gas running through the lines.
None of that was enough to prevent the pipeline explosions that hit Boston on Thursday night. As to whether they have been loud enough to awaken an industry that has become emboldened in recent years is a different matter.