Category Archives: Pipeline

Remember Bellingham

By Member Jennifer Homendy

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Olympic Pipe Line rupture in Bellingham, Washington, which resulted in the release of about 237,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek that flowed through Whatcom Falls Park. Sometime after the rupture, the gasoline ignited and burned about 1.5 miles along the creek. Two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old young man named Liam Wood died; 8 others were injured.

Bellingham, WA
Postaccident aerial view of portion of Whatcom Creek showing fire damage.

Liam had just graduated from high school and was fly fishing when he was overcome with fumes from the rupture. Years later, I met Liam’s stepfather, Bruce Brabec, as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Since Liam’s death, Bruce has been a tireless advocate for closing gaping holes in pipeline safety regulations, many of which have been revealed as a result of our pipeline accident investigations.

This past fall, I saw Bruce at a pipeline safety conference. The discussions over the days that followed left me wondering how much we’ve accomplished over the last 20 years. Is our pipeline system truly safer?

From a numbers standpoint, it’s good news and bad news. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 275 significant gas and hazardous liquid pipeline incidents in 1999, resulting in 22 fatalities and 208 injuries. Since that time, the number of significant incidents has fluctuated as PHMSA adopted new reporting criteria, with 288 significant incidents occurring in 2018.

Fatalities and injuries have decreased since 1999 to 7 fatalities and 92 injuries in 2018, but that provides no comfort for victims, their families, or their loved ones. The fact is, although pipelines are one of the safest ways to transport hazardous material, the impact of just one incident can be devastating. And although the number of accidents is low compared to other modes like highway and rail, there is much more that pipeline operators and federal regulators can do to get to zero incidents, zero fatalities, and zero injuries on our nation’s pipeline system.

Our recommendation for operators to install automatic or remote-control shut-off valves in high‑consequence areas is a perfect example. In 1994, we investigated a natural gas transmission pipeline rupture in Edison, New Jersey, which resulted in a fire that injured 112 people and destroyed 8 buildings. Pipeline operators were unable to shut down the gas flow to the rupture for 2½ hours. Our report on the accident recommended that the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), PHMSA’s predecessor, expedite requirements that automatic- or remote‑operated mainline valves be installed on high-pressure pipelines in urban and environmentally sensitive areas so that failed pipeline segments can be rapidly shut down. We have been recommending valve installation in some form on pipelines since 1971.

In response, RSPA issued a regulation requiring operators to install a valve only if the operator determines it will efficiently protect a high-consequence area in the event of a gas release.

Fast forward to September 9, 2010, when an intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline owned and operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company ruptured in a residential area in San Bruno, California. The rupture produced a crater about 72 feet long by 26 feet wide. The section of pipe that ruptured was found 100 feet south of the crater. The released natural gas ignited, resulting in a fire that destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70. Eight people were killed, many were injured, and many more were evacuated from the area.

In our report on the accident, we once again recommended that PHMSA expedite the installation of automatic shutoff valves and remote-control valves on transmission lines in populated areas, drinking water sources, and unusually sensitive ecological resources. Congress then required PHMSA to implement the recommendation in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (PL 112-90).

It’s been a decade since San Bruno, and PHMSA is nowhere near issuing a final rule to implement our recommendation. This issue is highlighted on our 2019–2020 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements (Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials).

MWL03s_HazMat

It’s my hope that over the next few years, we’ll see some real improvements in pipeline safety and avoid tragedies like the ones in Bellingham and San Bruno. With the technology we have readily available today, there’s absolutely no reason for any parent to have to face the loss of a child because of a pipeline accident. I hope that the next time I see Bruce Brabec, we’ll finally have the regulations in place that he’s worked so hard for on Liam’s behalf.

 

 

 

 

Working for Safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman

 Labor Day and Memorial Day both have specific relevance that can be lost in seasonal associations. The meaning of Memorial Day as a time to honor those lost in our nation’s wars can be eclipsed by its unofficial role as the “kickoff day” for summer. Similarly, all too often, we think of Labor Day only as summer’s end rather than as a commemoration of the contributions of the nation’s working men and women.

This Labor Day, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for the men and women who work every day in transportation, doing everything right so that there’s not an accident for the NTSB to investigate.

TranspWorker_ThankYou2

From owner-operators of long-haul trucks to employees of the biggest trucking companies; from captains of small fishing boats to employees of the biggest cruise lines and marine cargo companies; from air-tour operators to airline pilots and cabin crews; and throughout railroad and pipeline transportation, safe transportation depends on the dedication and hard work of the people on the front lines: individual transportation workers.

At the NTSB, we investigate what goes wrong in transportation. In each accident, we look at the human, the machine, and the environment. When we find a lapse in any of those areas, we look for ways to eliminate the opportunity for error. Meanwhile, day in and day out, good men and women go to work every day and do everything right. We don’t investigate the truck that stayed on the road because its conscientious drivers got plenty of sleep, or the ship that didn’t run aground because its captain and crew were well-trained and attentive. We’ll never hold a Board meeting to discuss one of the millions of safe airline flights every year, or to talk about the pipeline operators and railroad employees who found the safety defect among thousands of miles of rail or pipe before it caused an accident.

Although technology and design innovations have greatly improved transportation safety, we haven’t yet managed to eliminate everything that can go wrong in transportation. That’s why we depend so heavily on the nation’s transportation workers, who face rigorous rules and laws, to ensure safety. Commercial truckers and pilots log their rest and duty time to prevent fatigue. While the general driving public is subjected to a .08-percent blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit, for commercial drivers, the limit is already .04 percent. And then there are all the safety procedures these professionals are required to know—and follow—throughout their commercial transportation careers.

The majority of our nation’s transportation professionals meet these high standards and are intent on preventing transportation tragedies. As Chairman of the NTSB and a member of the traveling public, I want to express my appreciation for all those transportation workers who are quietly doing things right, day in and day out.

Professor James Reason once said that safety professionals live with a “chronic unease.” Safety is a matter of constantly searching out the unassessed hazard, the unmitigated risk. Transportation operators at every level embrace this difficult challenge every day. On this Labor Day, I gratefully tip my hat to each one of you who takes safety seriously.

 

Thank You

SafetyCompassLogoBy Stephanie D. Shaw

We launched Safety Compass in March 2011 to provide you an inside-out view of the investigative and advocacy efforts we’re engaged in and the important safety issues we’re focused on. As we close out 2017, we want to say “thank you” to you, our readers. Thank you for your interest in the work we do and for sharing our safety messages and recommendations for improving transportation safety.

From teens and sleep to drones, autonomous vehicles to our investigative processes, we’ve given you an inside look at the NTSB and highlighted our comprehensive approach to improving transportation safety across all modes and for all people.

To wrap up the year, here’s a list of some of our most popular blogs of 2017:

Last month, we released data revealing that 2,030 more people died in transportation accidents in 2016 than in 2015. Of those fatalities, 95 percent occurred on the nation’s roadways. Many of those deaths were completely preventable! As we approach 2018, we call on each of you to help us reverse the trend of increasing transportation fatalities, especially on our roadways. Continue to read our blog, see the lessons we’ve learned through our investigations, and share the safety recommendations we’ve made to prevent transportation accidents and crashes, deaths, and injuries.

We encourage you to keep up not only with our blogs, but with other NTSB materials. Sign up to be on our Constant Contact list. Follow us on Facebook (@NTSBgov), Instagram (@NTSBgov), LinkedIn (@NTSB), and Twitter (@NTSB). And in case you missed it, we launched a podcast in 2017, too! Check out Behind-the-Scene @NTSB wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to suggest a blog topic, e-mail SafetyAdvocacy@ntsb.gov.

As 2017 comes to an end, we again extend our gratitude to you for working with us to improve transportation safety. We wish you safe travels this holiday season and in 2018.

International Advocacy to Prepare and Prevent

By Nicholas Worrell

I recently had the privilege of speaking in Manchester, England, at the National Safer Roads Partnerships Conference. The United Kingdom has some of the lowest road-user fatality rates in the world. While our annual vehicle miles traveled vary greatly, on a typical day, about 109 road users are killed on America’s roadways, while only 5 Britons lose their lives the same way. But, as I reminded the conference audience, even one fatality is still too many.

This was a unique opportunity to represent the NTSB because the audience was mainly British law enforcement officers, and the British tradition of “policing by consent” was tailor‑made for a prevention-focused discussion. Policing by consent means that, because most people want law and order, the goal should be to prevent crime rather than focus on punishing perpetrators. Our Safety Advocacy Division operates with much the same philosophy, working to prevent transportation accidents by encouraging stakeholders to implement the agency’s recommendations. We also explain road safety to vulnerable populations, such as young drivers, to bring lifesaving information to the traveling public, and we share our findings with colleagues.

We know that, as we face coming challenges in road safety, prevention opportunities abound. Our recent speeding study noted the value of a “safe system” approach, which depends on layers of safety in a given road environment and recognizes preventive uses of technology, such as automated speed enforcement. Our recent investigation into the fatal crash of a partially automated vehicle allowed us to consider the double-edged sword of automation. Our investigations have shown that, as vehicles rely more and more on automated sensors, they also collect more data, which should be gathered in a standard format and reported when vehicles with enabled control systems crash.

The world is changing, crash factors are changing, and our tools are changing. The data that cars themselves can provide about crashes is expanding. As I told the law enforcement officers in Manchester, the NTSB has learned that everything an accident can tell us is worth our attention. We are conscious that every safety lesson learned is worth retelling, both to spur acceptance of our recommendations and to prepare ourselves, our colleagues, and the public for the challenges of a fast-approaching future. By sharing lessons learned across borders, we improve our chances at reaching zero transportation fatalities worldwide.

 

Nicholas Worrell is Chief of the NTSB Safety Advocacy Division.

 

The New Pipeline Rule I Waited Half a Career to See

By Charles Koval

One night, a couple feet underground outside an American home, the gas flowing in a service line began to escape through a puncture adjacent to a newly installed mailbox. A man and woman inside the home were watching the news. Their children were playing. Then, suddenly, without warning . . . nothing happened.

A simple and inexpensive device called an excess flow valve (EFV) kicked in, stopping the gas flow. There was no explosion, no fire, no injury or loss of life.

As a petroleum engineer and pipeline specialist for the NTSB, I know that the most important pipeline safety advance in recent decades has been the establishment of the national one-call 811 number. But EFVs may be the next most important life-saver, especially for homeowners.

Diagram of how an excess flow valve functionsGas companies install an EFV in a service pipeline where it meets the main line. The EFV shuts off the gas flow in the service line when it exceeds the normal flow rate; excess flow often indicates that gas is escaping the service line through a puncture or sever, potentially leading to an explosion or fire.

I’ve been working a long time to encourage the progress that came to fruition late last year regarding EFVs. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) quietly completed an important achievement and, in the process, closed an NTSB recommendation. PHMSA issued a rule expanding the use of EFVs to new or renewed service lines leading to almost all small commercial businesses and multi-residence buildings.

It’s taken decades to achieve this result. In all, the NTSB has made 24 safety recommendations related to EFVs.

When I came to the NTSB in 1990, the agency had already been endorsing EFVs for 20 years, beginning with recommending a shutoff valve after research that came out of a 1970 safety study.

I worked on accident after accident that may have been prevented by EFVs. Most of my work between 1990 and 1994 involved single-family residences, but many multi-residence accidents were just as horrible, if not worse. The incidents occurred in large cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and in smaller towns like St. Cloud, Minnesota; Montezuma, Indiana; and Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey. I can still remember my first NTSB supervisor expressing exasperation that this simple and elegant solution was not in wider use.

Then came June 9, 1994. At about 6:45 that evening, a 2-inch-diameter steel gas service line that had been exposed during excavation separated at a compression coupling about 5 feet from the north wall of John T. Gross Towers, an 8-story retirement home. The escaping gas flowed underground toward Gross Towers, passed through openings in the building foundation, entered the mechanical room through the floor vents, and migrated to other floors.

A resident smelled the gas, as did a workman onsite, who told his foreman. The foreman called the gas company and the housing authority, then had other employees locate and shut off the gas line valve inside the towers. But at 6:58 p.m., the built-up natural gas in the building ignited and exploded; a second explosion followed 5 minutes later. The accident killed one person and injured 66—and it could have been much worse. Many residents were not in the building on the early summer evening of the disaster.

A humble EFV could have shut off the gas flow into Gross Towers. After the explosion, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA’s predecessor agency require that all gas distribution operators inform all customers of the availability of EFVs. After many years, the agency did so. Meanwhile, fatal accidents continued—all potentially preventable with EFVs.

Then, in 1998, the NTSB was called to the site of an explosion and fire at a single-family home in South Riding, Virginia.

A man, woman, and their two children were spending their first night together in their new home. The family retired at about 10:30—the children to the upper level of the house, and, because not all of their furniture had arrived, the parents to the first-floor study. Shortly after midnight, the house exploded and was engulfed in flames. The children were thrown out of the house and onto the lawn, suffering minor injuries. The parents fell into the basement as the first floor collapsed. The father was able to crawl to safety, badly burned; the mother did not escape and died as a result of her injuries.

Again, an EFV could have prevented the tragedy.

Following this accident, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA require EFVs in all new and renewed gas service lines, regardless of customer classification, when operating conditions were compatible with readily available valves. PHMSA first required only that single-family homeowners be notified of the availability of the valve and be allowed to pay for it themselves. Then, in 2009, PHMSA changed the rule, requiring EFVs to be installed on almost all new and renewed service pipelines to single family homes.[1] Finally, on October 14, 2016, PHMSA expanded the safety requirement to include most new and renewed service pipelines for multi-residential and commercial applications, closing one chapter in EFV history—and with it, an outstanding NTSB recommendation.

My first NTSB supervisor is no longer with us, but even years ago, he could imagine the broad use of EFVs that he did not live to see. Sometimes it takes a long time to normalize safety. Too often, it takes a highly visible accident—or several of them—to draw attention to a problem. Solutions often come a little bit at a time, or a long time afterward, without any fanfare.

But for now, and well into the future, for many businesses and homes nationwide, if a service line fails, nothing will happen. These homes and businesses are a little safer today because PHMSA and the gas industry acted on NTSB’s EFV recommendations.

 

Charles Koval is a Petroleum Engineer and Pipeline Specialist in the NTSB Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials.

 

[1] The service line does not need an EFV if it: 1. does not operate at or above 10 psig all year, 2. has previously had contaminates, 3. could interfere with necessary operation or maintenance activities, or 4. is not commercially available to the operator.