Another pipeline incident anniversary – have things changed since 2009?

Question of the weekI think it was around this time in 2009 that a gas pipeline blew up in Palm City, Florida near a school. What really happened then, and have things gotten safer in the past 6 years?

On May 4, 2009, an 18-inch Florida Gas Transmission Company interstate pipeline ruptured about 6 miles south of Palm City, Florida, releasing about 36 million cubic feet of natural gas and causing three minor injuries in Martin County. The community was fortunate: the gas did not find a source of ignition and catch fire, nor did two other large gas lines buried parallel to the one that ruptured sustain any damage, though 106 feet (over 5,000 pounds) of buried pipeline was blown into the air and landed in the right-of-way between two major highways. The pipeline segment that failed was between two automatic shutoff valves, but only one closed in response to the pressure drop on the pipeline. A Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system was in use by the pipeline operator at its control center in Houston, TX to remotely monitor and control the movement of gas through the pipeline. The SCADA system also failed to recognize the rupture or trigger any alarms.NTSB: Location next to I-95 and high school, in Rupture of Florida Gas Transmission Pipeline and Release of Natural Gas 20090504

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a pipeline accident brief on this incident, which found the cause of the accident to be the operator’s failure to detect cracking of the pipeline beneath protective coating. The NTSB also found that the operator failed to correctly identify the pipe as being within a high consequence area even though it was near a school.

As with most pipeline incidents, there were many contributing factors to this incident. The operator subsequently changed operations and procedures related to this pipeline in response to a PHMSA corrective action order as reported by the NTSB. But here, in response to the question about whether things have gotten safer in the past 6 years, we will focus on the issue of high consequence area (HCA) identification.

If the pipeline segment had been correctly identified as being within a high consequence area, then it would have been included in the pipeline operator’s integrity management program. There are specific rules in the federal regulations requiring the implementation of integrity management in high consequence areas, and these include specific inspection, analysis, maintenance and repair criteria designed to detect problems such as those that caused this 2009 incident.

As to whether these same mistakes could be happening today, the answer is yes. Are things safer? It’s hard to say. The same rules that allowed the identity and location of HCA’s to be kept secret from the public in 2009 are still in place. The public can’t know, until after an incident, whether an operator has accurately identified the HCAs along its route.  

A fundamental problem is that PHMSA essentially leaves the designation of high consequence area (HCA) boundaries up to the pipeline operators, and entrusts them to update the boundaries when any changes take place that would trigger a new inclusion in the HCA. There is no way for an average citizen to know about the details of these HCA boundaries, to know if PHMSA is enforcing the designation of those areas, and no way to help ensure operators encapsulate what needs to be included within those boundaries according to the regulations.

For example, on a gas transmission line like the one in Florida that ruptured in 2009, the presence of certain populated areas would trigger the HCA designation. There is a complicated way for gas pipeline operators to choose their method of designation and draw their boundaries (see 49 CFR §192.903). Put generally, any area near a pipeline with a high population (for gas pipelines, that means 20 or more homes), or with a populated activity center (e.g. school, office, assisted living, recreation area, campground, etc.; referred to as “designated sites” in the gas regulations), would be considered part of an HCA. Just how near to the gas pipeline these homes and activities need to be to trigger the HCA designation depends on how big the pipeline is, and the pressure inside it.

So what if a community is building a new school? Or what if a development goes in within a half-mile of an existing pipeline? In the case of a hazardous liquid (e.g. crude oil or petroleum) pipeline, nearby town water intakes or environmentally sensitive areas also trigger the HCA designation – what if a town changes their water intake or an agency recognizes a new critical habitat area? These types of changes and development happen all across the country, but only a very few communities have practices or rules in place that facilitate active dialogue between a pipeline operator and developer, or between an emergency management team and pipeline operator, to the degree that these types of changes are promptly reflected in a pipeline operator’s integrity management program.

In fact, PHMSA rules allow over 10 years – yes, TEN YEARS – from the time a natural gas pipeline operator identifies HCA changes to when that information must be part of a completed baseline assessment of the pipeline in the newly identified HCA. And PHMSA rules allow over 6 years from the time a hazardous liquid pipeline operator identifies an area of high population or sensitivity, to when that information must have been incorporated into its completed pipeline assessment. And the time between the actual on-the-ground change and the identification of that change by the pipeline operator adds even more time – a vague amount of time as this type of information analysis is only required by the operator ‘periodically.’

Contrary to some who think pipeline information needs to be less accessible, we think the secrecy surrounding pipeline operator’s designations of high consequence areas (HCAs) and other withheld information leads to more risky pipelines. If communities could access this type of information easily, it would be easy for planners, emergency responders, and concerned citizens to inform pipeline operators when a change is needed – thereby leading to SAFER pipelines, not more risky ones. Our experience is that those most impacted by pipelines – those who live in close proximity to them, are the ones with most at stake and most interested in keeping the pipelines and their community safe. Withholding information from these stakeholders disregards critical allies in our collective efforts toward safer pipelines.

Despite the lack of a transparent playing field in this area, there are some things you can do.

Communities with active Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC) often have regular open meetings, and the committee itself should include representation from community groups as well as emergency response professionals, elected officials, professional staff, and facility and pipeline operators. The emergency responders who participate in these meetings have the ability to access information from pipeline operators that the general public cannot access. Pipeline operators are required to share their emergency response plans with local first responders, and to maintain liaison with appropriate fire, police, and other public officials. Citizens can participate with the LEPC and request the committee work on accurate identification of HCAs in partnership with the pipeline operator. The LEPC topic is addressed in more detail in chapter 5 of our Local Government Guide to Pipelines.

PHMSA maintains a web-based National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS), which is viewable on a county-level and depicts the location of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines, along with population areas and other information. While the population areas may give some indication of where a high consequence area is likely to be designated, there is not a direct link between the NPMS information and what the operators currently use to designate their HCAs. The PHMSA information is not up to date, and does not include the level of detail or environmental information needed to truly assess HCA boundaries. This is a problem. There are periodic opportunities for the public to comment on this issue, as the Trust did in December 2014 and October 2013 (comments of the Trust on a variety of pipeline safety topics are viewable here). The public needs to be able to view information and data gathered from pipeline companies on NPMS that depicts pipeline locations within an HCA with a high level of accuracy. There is in fact a statutory requirement that HCAs be incorporated as part of NPMS and updated biennially.[1]

Lastly, the Palm City, Florida incident was one of the incidents the NTSB highlighted in their recent safety study published earlier this year entitled “Integrity Management of Gas Transmission Pipelines in High Consequence Areas” and discussed in our January 30 Smart Pig blog post. This study included a number of additional changes needed to help make pipelines safer over time.

[1] Pipeline Safety Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011; Section 6 made part of 49 USC 60132.

Local options when thinking about new pipelines

Question of the weekThere are rumors of a new pipeline coming to my community. I’ve heard of another town with its own pipeline ordinance, but I also hear that it’s not up to the community and we really have no say. Should we pass our own ordinance and will it help?

You can pass your own ordinance, but whether it will help or not depends on where you are, what type of pipeline is proposed, and what the ordinance says.

It is true that in some circumstances communities “have no say,” but not all. There are a few circumstances over which the federal agencies have exclusive authority: FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has exclusive authority over the routing of new interstate natural gas pipelines; and PHMSA, the federal pipeline safety agency, retains authority over rulemaking and enforcement of safety regulations governing oil and natural gas pipelines. States can seek certification from PHMSA to regulate the safety of intrastate pipelines, and once certified can write stronger regulations for those pipelines than the federal minimum regulations established by PHMSA. States can take on a stronger role in other areas as well – but that is a subject for another post. If not disallowed by the state, local communities can have an important role when it comes to land use and pipelines.

For situations where local rules are not preempted by other state or federal laws, there are a number of options for action:

When a pipeline is built, the pipeline operator typically needs to get road crossing permits and negotiate franchise agreements or easements for crossing public roads, using road rights of way or crossing parks or other land owned by the local government. Some communities do this as they need to, and others have an ordinance that governs all these types of franchise agreements or easements between the town/county and the pipeline operator. This type of ordinance typically avoids preemption issues with state or federal law, though we recommend consulting with an attorney in your area. Franchises can address things like notification to the local government, maintenance of the right-of-way, availability of information, required payments by operators, circumstances where relocation of the pipeline may be necessary (and who would pay for it), pipeline abandonment, insurance and financial guarantees, and other issues. For examples of franchise ordinances, see the Franchise page on our website.

There are also community ordinances that establish a setback or consultation area between the pipeline and certain development, homes, or businesses. There are no federal regulations that set an absolute minimum distance that a pipeline can be built from a house, so a number of communities have moved forward on their own to do this. One option is to establish a ‘consultation zone’ so the pipeline owner and property owner or developer of any new project have to talk with one another prior to going ahead with the development or the new pipeline. Another option is to pass an ordinance requiring setbacks that vary depending on what type of residential uses exist near the pipeline. We have examples of these types of ordinances as well on our website.

Setbacks are often intended to help prevent damage to the pipeline by people doing something stupid on top of it (like installing a swimming pool or fence), or to aid in evacuation by offering a bit more time for folks to get out of the area. But they are likely not wide enough to protect a person from an explosion on a high pressure pipeline (for larger diameter high pressure gas pipelines, that distance may need to be over 1,000 feet).

A local government could also choose to treat new pipelines as a conditional use and require a pipeline proponent to apply for and receive a conditional use permit before beginning construction within the jurisdiction. You can find an example of this option on our website as well (see Colorado example).

Chapter 4 of our Local Government Guide describes in more detail options that local communities have as they think about how best to prepare for the prospect of a new pipeline coming to town.

New Natural Gas Pipelines and Proximity to Homes

We’ve had a couple inquires in the past few weeks from citizens who have property on or near which a new natural gas pipeline is being proposed. They have asked: 1) How close to homes can one of these pipelines be installed? and 2) What are the options to minimize the danger when developing pipelines in proximity to other structures if the pipeline were to rupture?

The answer to the first question is straightforward: There is no limitation on how close gas pipelines can be built to homes. The federal regulations say nothing about any minimum distance away from homes that pipeline installation must occur. There is language in the regulations that requires operators to generally protect the pipe from hazards, but often much is left up to the discretion of the operator. For example:

CFR §192.317(a), “The operator must take all practicable steps to protect each transmission line or main from washouts, floods, unstable soil, landslides, or other hazards that may cause the pipeline to move or to sustain abnormal loads….”

and,

CFR §192.325(a), “Each transmission line must be installed with at least 12 inches (305 millimeters) of clearance from any other underground structure not associated with the transmission line. If this clearance cannot be attained, the transmission line must be protected from damage that might result from the proximity of the other structure.”

The second question leads to a longer answer. And one we cannot address without making mention of PIPA (the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance), a group made up of industry (including representatives from interstate natural gas pipeline operators), government, and public representatives that developed a set of recommended practices for development near existing pipelines. This group met for years to address the very real concerns of development and pipelines impacting one another and posing risks to one another. Recommended practices include things like: “Reduce Transmission Pipeline Risk in New Development for Residential, Mixed-Use, and Commercial Land Use,” which states in part:

“…it is prudent to design buildings and related facilities in a manner that mitigates the potential impacts on people and property from a transmission pipeline incident. Locating structures away from the pipeline right-of-way (ROW), incorporating more stringent building fire safety measures are examples of mitigation techniques that may improve public safety and limit damage to buildings or infrastructure in the event of a transmission pipeline incident.”

It is puzzling to us how the industry can see the importance of these types of recommendations, and not see the importance of turning them around to apply to the development of new pipelines near existing buildings. We have been pushing PIPA to be reinvigorated and tackle this issue, but as of yet it has not happened.

Risks in proximity to gas pipelines are relative to the size and pressure of the pipeline. “A Model for Sizing High Consequence Areas Associated with Natural Gas Pipelines” was published in 2000 by Mark Stephens of C-FER Technologies, and prepared for the Gas Research Institute [LINK]. This report gives detailed explanations and calculations that lead to a proposed hazard area radius as a function of line diameter and pressure (see Figure 2.4 in the report). The hazard area radius is basically the area in proximity to the pipeline within which there would be virtually no chance of survival if a pipeline rupture and fire were to happen, and it varies in size from about 100 feet to about 700 feet for a 6-inch to 42-inch pipeline, respectively. For example, A 26-inch, 600 psi natural gas pipeline would have an approximate 450 foot hazard area radius, according to the C-FER model. The model does not take into account things like wind, topography, and any protection such as berms or fire walls.

States and (if the state does not preempt them) local communities may adopt their own setbacks between pipelines and homes. No jurisdiction that we know of has adopted the C-FER hazard area as the basis of setbacks from natural gas pipelines, though it has often been discussed. For jurisdictions that have adopted some sort of setback or consultation ordinances, see this link.

A few of the ordinances accessed through our website link specifically discuss evacuation, and evacuation is also addressed in the PIPA recommendations. Language repeated in a number of recommendations is “…buildings should have a safe means of egress with exits located where they would not be made inaccessible by the impacts of a pipeline incident. Similarly, cul-de-sac streets should not be designed crossing a transmission pipeline as the only route of ingress or egress could be blocked during a pipeline incident.”

Some gas pipelines lie within High Consequence Areas – basically areas with higher population density – and operators of those pipelines are required to have an integrity management program that includes conducting risk management and regular assessment of the pipeline. Depending on the location, the pipeline may also be required to have thicker walls or more frequent valve spacing.

While we know of no instances where FERC has denied a new gas pipeline application, there are instances where the pipeline route has changed due to environmental, safety, or other concerns brought to light during the FERC proceedings.