Is a Pipeline Explosion Coming to Your Neighborhood?

This month’s string of blowups comes as a new government report finds the risk of accidents hasn’t declined despite stronger regulations.
Jan 28, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

New week, new fossil fuel pipeline fail. Monday’s gas pipe explosion in Brooke County, West Virginia, is the fourth pipeline accident this month. It blew just one day before federal regulators charged natural gas pipeline operators with lax safety practices.

The latest explosion caused no injuries or property damage, according to local news, though “a number of residents have said they saw what appeared to be a large fireball burning in the sky.”

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report finding no decline in pipeline accidents since 2003, when the federal government ordered stronger safety standards. The NTSB also issued 30 safety recommendations for the United States’ 298,000 miles of gas pipelines.

“The 2003 regulations have kept the rate of corrosion failures and material failures low," the agency said in a statement. "There is no evidence that they have led to an overall decline in accidents in high-consequence areas."

"High-consequence areas" is bureaucratic-speak for densely populated neighborhoods with a high potential for loss of life and property. In other words, chances that your local natural gas pipeline will go up in flames remains the same.

January’s first gas line explosion shook a Mississippi town two weeks ago. The fire that followed was large enough "that the National Weather Service’s radar detected the smoke plume," a local newspaper reported.

January has also seen two oil pipe disasters—even as the Senate’s Republican majority fast-tracks debate on a bill to approve the Keystone pipeline to transport oil across the United States, from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Jan. 17 rupture of an oil line beneath the wild Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana, sent about 30,000 gallons of oil into the river, cutting drinking water supplies of thousands of nearby residents for about five days. State lawmakers are starting to ask why Montana’s environmental regulators apparently were asleep at the wheel regarding the pipeline’s condition.

In North Dakota, operators discovered on Jan. 6—but have only gradually informed officials and the public—that a pipeline had spilled 3 million gallons of toxic petrochemicals onto land and into two nearby waterways. Local news organizations reported that the state has not kept up with inspections on Montana’s 20,000 miles of underground pipeline.

The NTSB noted three major recent gas line explosions as emblematic of the industry’s safety failures: a 2009 gas rupture in Florida that tossed a 100-foot pipe onto open land between two large highways, although amazingly there was no fire or cars hit; a massive 2010 pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb that killed nine people and demolished 70 homes; and a 2012 explosion in West Virginia in which, according to media reports, “the released natural gas ignited and burned so hot that it charred 800 feet of roadway along nearby Interstate 77, destroyed three homes, and melted the siding on houses hundreds of feet from the rupture site.”

The number of such accidents has plateaued in the past 10 years, according to the NTSB, but they haven’t declined. Gas pipelines regulated by state agencies were nearly 30 percent more likely to experience an accident than those with federal oversight, the agency found.