What went wrong? Those are the questions federal investigators are looking into why no alarms sounded as a massive natural gas explosion in West Virginia sent out huge flames, engulfing homes and a large section of an interstate for more than an hour.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will visit Columbia Gas Transmission’s Charleston control room this week to try to learn why the company’s alarm system failed, said agency spokesman Robert Sumwalt.
It took Columbia more than an hour — approximately 64 minutes — to manually stop the flow of gas to the pipe about 15 miles away at Sissonville on Tuesday, Sumwalt said. While some companies have installed automatic shut-off valves, they are not required.
The 20-inch transmission pipe exploded around midday Tuesday, destroying four homes, cooking a section of Interstate 77, a major north-south commuting corridor that passes through the capital city, and creating a crater 17 feet deep. Several people ended up treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no fatalities.
“Part of our investigation will be looking to see if this pipe was shut down in a reasonable and prudent fashion,” Sumwalt said.
Teams with the parent company, Indiana-based NiSource, are working alongside investigators, and the company said it is cooperating fully. After the investigation is finished, NiSource said, it will “take any follow-up actions necessary to ensure the continued safe operation of our system.”
The pipeline is part of a network that primarily serves local utilities but also delivers gas to Georgia. NiSource said the explosion affected one specific location “and does not affect the safety or operation of any pipelines outside of that immediate area.”
Nearly 15,000 miles of natural gas pipeline stretch across West Virginia. Federal regulators said there have been 20 “significant” pipeline incidents involving deaths, injuries or major property damage in West Virginia in the past decade.
The damage from Tuesday’s blast and the inferno it sparked were amazing. Four homes burned and collapsed. Five others suffered damage. On the highway, the heat burned utility poles and melted guardrails and pavement. Road crews worked throughout the night to reopen an 800-foot damaged section of the interstate Wednesday.
Experts consider pipelines a safer way to move gas than rail, truck or barge, but gaps remain in regulatory oversight.
In January, President Barack Obama signed a law aimed at improving such oversight. The measure increased penalties for violations, required automatic shut-off valves on new pipelines and improved public access to safety information.
An advisory committee from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is meeting this week near Washington, D.C., to discuss the law’s implementation.