Corrosion, aging infrastructure common denominators in gas pipeline incidents

In recent years, there have been several fatal gas pipeline explosions throughout the U.S. that subsequent investigations and lawsuits have attributed to corrosion and outdated infrastructure.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an average of roughly 18% of pipeline "incidents" between 1998 and 2017 were determined to have been caused by corrosion – both internally and externally.

Since 1990, more than 250 people have been killed as a result of natural gas incidents – including leaks and explosions – along with over 1,600 injuries, according to an analysis of federal data conducted by USA Today.

Repeat offenders and limited oversight

Some have attributed many of the recent fatal incidents resulting from gas pipeline corrosion to the lack of oversight on behalf of state and federal regulators regarding the maintenance of their utilities' infrastructure – notably in lawsuits filed by family members of victims.

More than 53,000 miles of gas pipelines that are currently used in the country were built before 1940, according to The Shreveport Times.

NiSource and Columbia Gas (a subsidiary) were ordered in July to pay $143 million as the result of a class-action negligence lawsuits filed against the companies due to the latter's involvement with the over pressurization of gas lines in the Merrimack Valley that resulted in multiple explosions and one death in the region on September 13, 2018, according to MassLive.

According to a WCVB News report following the explosions, Columbia Gas Transmissions (formerly owned by Columbia Gas and NiSource) was found to have been fined $1.3 million between 2002 and 2014 for incidents and safety violations along its gas transportation infrastructure.

One notable Columbia case involved a gas pipeline explosion in Sissonville, West Virginia in 2012 that destroyed homes and caused a fire that Kanawha County Commissioner President Kent Carper described as having "melted" a part of I-77 so that it looked like "lava, just boiling."

No deaths were reported as a result of the incident, although a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the probable cause included "external corrosion" on the pipeline due to deteriorated coating and ineffective cathodic protection" and "the failure to detect corrosion" because it had not been inspected after 1988. The section of pipeline did not use automatic shutoff valves, among other modern safety features, the report showed.

The cause of the most recent fatal explosion in the U.S. that killed one woman on August 1, 2019 in Moreland, Kentucky, for example, has not been officially determined, yet some suspect that limited oversight and resulting corrosion could be to blame.

The Texas Eastern Transmission Co. pipeline along which the August explosion in Kentucky occurred has been involved with nine deaths in dozens of natural gas incidents since 1985, according to a Courier Journal investigation. The more than 9,000-mile-long pipeline is owned and operated by Enbridge, which has been the subject of gas incident-damage-related lawsuits over many years.

In July 2019, members of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe filed a lawsuit against the company claiming that it continues to transport oil and gas through their land without an easement using a Texas East line they alleged to be corroded and at-risk of bursting, the Associated Press reported.

In Kentucky, the nearly 700 miles of pipeline running through the state were built before 1970, and federal officials have said that corrosion was the cause of approximately 30% of Texas Eastern's 83 "significant" incidents since 1986, the Courier reported.

According to Mark McDonald, president of Boston-based NatGas Consulting, the lack of attention to outdated natural gas pipeline infrastructure has been perpetuated due to what he believes is a relative lack of oversight from both state and federal PHMSA inspectors.

In a November 2018 Shreveport Times story, McDonald – formerly a leak inspector at Boston Gas Co. for 25 years – claimed that he had "never seen a PHMSA investigator" in his "entire career," let alone a "surprise visit" from either a federal or state regulator.

Corrosion, aging infrastructure common denominators in gas pipeline incidentsCorrosion, aging infrastructure are common denominators in gas pipeline incidents

"Degrading nature" of decades-old cast-iron pipes

Nationally, the federal government has called on gas utilities to replace what was reported in 2017 to be just over 70,000 miles of operational cast iron and bare-steel gas pipes used around the country, following a 1990 fatal explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania, according to the Shreveport Times.

By the end of 2017, roughly 97% of pipelines in the country were made of plastic or steel, with the remainder comprising mostly iron, according to the PHMSA, which keeps a national record of cast iron and wrought iron pipeline inventory and incidents.

Cast iron pipes, in particular, pose an increased risk for corrosion and potentially dangerous incidents due to their age, joint design and the "degrading nature" of iron alloys, the agency said.

Following national outcry on the issue of gas pipeline aging, The Pipeline Safety, Regulator Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011 charged the Department of Transportation with tracking the progress of cast iron replacement around the country.

In fact, the over pressurization of gas lines that caused the Merrimack Valley explosions was initially brought about after workers had removed a cast iron section as a part of ongoing replacement efforts, the NTSB found.

As of the end of 2018, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts still used 471 miles of cast iron pipes slated for replacement and had replaced just under half of those previously in use, the Times reported.