Preventing Gas Pipeline Disasters

It was something of a miracle that no one was injured seriously when a 20-inch natural gas pipeline exploded near Sissonville, W.Va. in December. As it was, a massive blowtorch of a fire destroyed several homes and melted the asphalt on about 100 feet of nearby Interstate 77.

Such pipeline failures can be deadly. A 2010 explosion in California killed eight people.

National Transportation Safety Board officials have released about 1,400 pages of documents involved in their investigation of the Sissonville disaster. While readers may be able to draw their own conclusions, the NTSB will not place blame until a final report is released.

It became apparent quickly that the pipeline itself was woefully inadequate. In the section that broke, the pipe’s walls had corroded to a fraction of their original thickness.

Gas explosions are not rare in the United States. Part of the reason for that is the age of much of the country’s gas infrastructure. Installed decades or generations ago, many gas lines have deteriorated to the point they no longer are safe.

As U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pointed out in hearings held in Charleston on the Sissonville explosion, new federal pipeline laws are on the books. Implementation has been slow, however.

NTSB officials should do more than merely come to a conclusion on what caused the blast and fire in December. In addition, drawing on their database of information about pipeline failures and safety in general, they should present an action plan to augment the maintenance and repair schedules some pipeline companies already have.

Instead of waiting for the next explosion, federal and state officials should insist gas companies maintain their pipelines more carefully and consistently. NTSB officials should make recommendations on that.