With 2.5 million miles of pipeline stretching around the
United States, Senator Rockefeller and Senator Joe Manchin—who also
participated in the hearing—we’re told that more needs to be done to ensure the
safety of the public and the environment.
As the first to testify, Sissonville resident Sue Bonham told
the committee she believes she would have been killed if it weren’t for a phone
call that kept her from walking out the door on December 11 just
as the pipeline exploded.
“I witnessed the earth being scorched, my home burning and
melting, everything was blistering or exploding, my step-daughter’s home
imploding into ashes, and hearing the continuing roar of the explosion. I
looked into the sky and wondered if maybe this was simply the end of the
While Bonham’s testimony provided personal insight into some
of the horrific experiences a pipeline explosion can cause, the hearing
ultimately focused on the specifics of the Sissonville accident and what can be
done to handle similar incidents in the future.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah
Hersman outlined her agency’s investigation into the response from Columbia Gas
Transmission operators during the Sissonville incident. She said a worker from another gas company
first reported the explosion.
“At 12:43 p.m.
the Columbia Gas operations center in Charleston
received the first three pressure drops from the Lanham Compressor
Station. Over the next ten minutes 13
more pressure drop alerts were received in the control center in Charleston.
Each alert was acknowledged by the controller but it was not until 12:53 p.m.—when Columbia Gas received a call
from Cabot—did the Columbia Gas controller begin to understand that one of
their pipelines had likely ruptured.”
Hersman also said that Columbia
workers had to shut off the valves by hand making the need to improve response
times a key issue.
Susan Fleming of the Government Accountability Office spoke about
response times to incidents such as the one in Sissonville as she delivered
information from a GAO study released just last week.
“A number of variables—only some of which are within an
operator’s control—can influence operator response time. For example, weather
conditions and time of day are variables beyond an operator’s control. Factors
within an operator’s control include the operator’s leak detection
capabilities, proximity of operator response personnel, the type of valve
installed—automatic or manual—and relationships with local first responders.
These factors affect incident response time to varying degrees, depending on
the specific incident.”
Cynthia Quarterman of the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials
Safety Administration also gave testimony on the actions her agency has taken
since legislation passed in 2011 calling for various improvements in pipeline
Monday's hearing also revealed that the ruptured pipeline was
not located in a "high consequence" area, even though two pipelines
situated close to it were designated as such. Currently, only pipelines in
these areas are considered for automatic or remote shutoff valves.
Another result of the pipeline not being designated "high
consequence" is it did not have to be checked for corrosion with a
"smart pig", a tool that travels through a line to search for
Rick Kessler, president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, cited
The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job creation Act of 2011 as he criticized
a lack of requirements for smart pigs and updated shutoff valves that could
have allowed workers to more swiftly deal with the situation.
“We agree with the NTSB that such valves should be required,
the automatic or remote shutoff valves, and there is a difference. Yet, the
pipeline safety bill that we all worked on fell short of this requirement on
existing pipelines in Sissonville and San Bruno.
"No doubt, Mr. Chairman, you opened your car this morning with a remote control.
We use remote controls to turn off and on our TVs, to do all sorts of
things—our garage doors for instance. Yet, somehow, we find it acceptable that
an industry can use 1960s technology in 2013.”
NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage CEO Jimmy Staton told
the committee his company continues to search for ways to make improvements to its
infrastructure and is committed to helping those in Sissonville who were
affected by the incident.
“We will continue to work cooperatively with these agencies
as the NTSB completes its final analysis and will apply lessons learned all to our
processes, procedures, and of our pipeline assets.”
Rockefeller says yesterday’s hearing is part of his effort
as Senate Commerce Committee Chairman to make public safety a priority.