A new state law intended to provide gas companies a powerful incentive – money – to ensure their pipelines are safe went into effect April 29 in West Virginia. Now, state officials need to ensure the statute is being enforced.
Though Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill into law April 29, he and other officials staged a symbolic signing event at the Sissonville Fire Department. The site was obviously chosen because of an accident in December, when a major pipeline burst and exploded at Sissonville. Four homes were destroyed and a section of Interstate 77 was ruined and had to be replaced. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported.
Investigators found the line at Sissonville failed because the pipe walls had corroded to a fraction of their original size, weakening the line to the point it no longer could handle pressurized gas.
In March, even as state legislators were debating the new pipeline safety bill, a 24-inch “gathering” line failed near Cameron. A few residents in the area had to be evacuated but there were no injuries and no property damage.
Then, in April, a tragedy struck. An explosion and fire occurred at a station in Tyler County where equipment used to monitor the interior condition of pipelines was handled. Two men died.
Under the new law, fines for pipeline safety violations have been increased to as much as $200,000 a day, with a $2 million limit. Again, that provides gas companies with a powerful incentive to ensure their pipelines are in good condition.
But such fines at the state and federal levels usually come into play only when pipelines have failed, sometimes with disastrous results. Meanwhile, the task of inspecting pipelines and related facilities is left largely to companies operating them.
State officials should look into whether the Public Service Commission, which has authority over gas pipelines within West Virginia, has enough personnel to conduct adequate inspections. If not, the Legislature should consider funding additional inspectors, with the goal of spotting deficiencies before they erupt into disasters.