Salem pipeline explosion could lead to renewed look at risks

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 2 hours ago There's little on the landscape today to suggest the damage a massive natural gas pipeline explosion wreaked last spring in Salem Township. But the April 29 blast — it left one man severely...

Salem pipeline explosion could lead to renewed look at risks

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Updated 2 hours ago

There's little on the landscape today to suggest the damage a massive natural gas pipeline explosion wreaked last spring in Salem Township.

But the April 29 blast — it left one man severely burned, destroyed a home and damaged several others, scorched 40 acres of farmland, melted portions of a highway and moved the needle on the energy futures market — has left lasting changes.

Federal pipeline safety investigators have yet to issue a final report on the accident. But officials from Spectra Energy Corp., which operates the 30-inch interstate pipeline that exploded, said it already is incorporating lessons it learned into enhanced safety procedures.

Company officials said they have shortened the length of time between inspections on the affected line and two adjacent lines from seven years to every three years. They also enhanced data analysis for flagging pipeline anomalies for repairs after learning that what was considered a minor anomaly on the Salem pipeline, flagged for reinspection at a later date, deteriorated at an unprecedented rate.

“It was very small. It was smaller than any threshold we'd be required to investigate,” Andy Drake of Spectra said last fall at a town hall meeting.

Spectra spokesman Creighton Welch said the company is sharing its findings industrywide.

“Spectra Energy regularly meets with our industry trade associations and other industry leaders in order to ensure that we are collaborating on new safety efforts and sharing best practices, as we all share a common goal of zero incidents,” Welch said.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the national Pipeline Safety Trust, commended that move but said the industry needs to get a better handle on risk.

“We agree with Spectra Energy that such pipelines often need more frequent in-line inspections, but why did it take a major failure for them to recognize this when the federal regulations clearly state they are supposed to identify risks and mitigate them before a failure?” said Weimer.

He said he'd like the industry to join the Trust, the National Transportation Safety Board and others in developing industry-wide improvements to prevent such tragedies.

First responders who raced to the scene of the Salem explosion said the experience reinforced the value of annual training exercises the gas industry sponsors.

Bob Rosatti, chief of the Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Department, was among the first firefighters on the scene the morning of April 29.

As he headed toward the blast, the heat from the fireball forced him back into his truck a quarter-mile away. He knew immediately that first responders had a natural gas disaster on their hands and immediately helped secure the perimeter of the blast zone. The fire subsided quickly once gas company operators at a remote location shut off the flow through the line.

Although pipeline rights of way have been part of the area landscape for so long that many people take them for granted, Rosatti said that has never been the case with the local volunteer fire service.

“We take it very seriously because of the amount of product we have coming through here,” Rosatti said.

His company knows the locations of the massive pipelines that ferry natural gas across the state. Members can pinpoint the compressor stations that service natural gas pipelines and underground storage caverns as well as the underground gasoline pipelines that cross their service area. And thanks to their work with the industry, they know what to expect and what to do in the event of an accident.

“Basically I'm glad we had a good working relationship with the gas company, and I'm sure this will forge the relationship even stronger,” Rosatti said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com

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