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Natural Gas Pipeline Failure Proves Fatal, Raises Questions - P.2

In our last post, we discussed the natural gas pipeline explosion in a suburb of San Francisco last week and how cities throughout Maryland and the rest of the country could be at risk.

Post continued:
There have been 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents recorded in the U.S. since 1990. More than a third of those incidents have resulted in deaths and serious injuries. It is hopeful that the tragic pipeline explosion in San Bruno will inspire Maryland and other states to conduct tough and more frequent inspection of their lines.

Some complaints have surfaced that pipeline infrastructure plans are too often drafted away from the public eye, and that there is little opportunity for residents to weigh in when pipeline development is being planned in their area. They system relies on its federal regulatory arm, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials safety Administration, to enforce safe operation practices of the United States interstate pipeline system, and further expects state public utility agencies to adopt federal rules and conduct inspection and enforcement of pipelines within state boundaries. The fatal flaw of this regulatory system is that too often it is left up to the utility company to survey and report out on high risk pipelines to state and federal authorities. There are only about 100 federally employed inspectors nationwide, so there is little assurance that all violators will be brought to task.

Reliance on utility companies to report problems aside, ensuring pipeline safety throughout Maryland and the rest of the country is still a huge challenge due solely to the fact that our natural gas pipeline network stretches more than 2 million miles, enough to span the globe 100 times over. More than 60 percent of the network was installed before 1970. The infrastructure is mainly comprised of steel pipe, where the older material is increasing vulnerable to corrosion. Most problematic is cast-iron piping in use, though this makes up a much smaller percentage. Some piping in Pennsylvania is (surprisingly) actually still made of wood, according to local officials.

From a purely financial standpoint, it's understandable that utility companies aren't jumping on the need to replace aging pipelines. Some of the lengthiest stretches can cost upwards of $30 million. Though Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the company who owned the piping that caused the recent San Bruno explosion, has spent more than $100 million on infrastructure improvements in the last few years routinely maintaining and surveying 48,000 miles of transmission and distribution pipeline, it wasn't enough to prevent the loss of four lives and an entire neighborhood last week. The utility company maintains the pipe that ruptured had been surveyed twice in the past 12 months for corrosion and leaks, and had received a clean bill of health.

Let's hope Maryland's regulatory authorities and utility companies take the San Bruno story to heart and exercise diligence in their inspections.

Source: Associated Press "Aging gas pipes at risk of explosion nationwide" 9/14/10

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