Public Safety

It was a miracle no one was killed when a gas pipeline near Sissonville ruptured in December 2012. As it was, three homes were destroyed and a section of Interstate 77 was melted, requiring overnight repair. The potential for loss of life or serious injury was far too real. Now the National Transportation Safety Board is reporting that section of pipeline had not been inspected in an unfathomable 24 years. External corrosion on the pipe was so severe that it had been reduced to 30 percent of its 1967 thickness.

Corrosion was not the only problem, of course. Rocky backfill surrounded the buried pipe. Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. did not have an adequate system of alerts in place. There were no automatic shutoffs or remote control valves in order to isolate the rupture and shut off the flow of what was eventually $285,000 worth of natural gas.

If this set of safety failures sounds familiar, it is because they are similar to the problems faced by Freedom Industries Inc. and West Virginia American Water a few months back. West Virginia’s industrial infrastructure is, for the most part, not new, nor has it received the attention it should. Far too much of the system we rely on for our economic stability is a threat to our physical wellbeing, as long as it remains neglected – an afterthought.

Now, economic studies predict West Virginia will need to see a boom in infrastructure construction – especially pipelines – if we are to continue to cash in on the natural resources at our disposal. As Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pointed out, the NTSB’s report should be a wake-up call for the pipeline industry. At the very least, it should be a blueprint for how not to handle the installation, maintenance and inspection process for the new pipelines our state will need.

If companies need incentive beyond simply doing the right thing, it should be noted Columbia is paying a heavy financial price for its negligence. In addition to the nearly $300,000 in natural gas lost, Columbia had to shell out nearly $3 million to repair the ruptured pipeline and $5.5 million for system upgrades to accommodate in-line inspections.

Public safety must be at the forefront of any planning for the pipelines and tanks to come, but also in the inspections that should be taking place all over the state right now, of the facilities already in place. It is true no one died because of a company’s failures in this case. Without the proper effort and attention, next time we may not be so lucky.