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A major natural gas pipeline in New York’s Southern Tier poses a public safety risk because of defective welds that could lead to a rupture, a federal report said.

The Millennium Pipeline, which runs more than 180 miles from Steuben County to Rockland County, has been under investigation since officials detected a leak Jan. 11 in the Town of Owego.

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The New York State Department of Public Service conducted a five-month investigation, and determined that a 1/8-inch leak caused by a faulty weld released 1.3 million cubic feet of natural gas from the pipeline.

There was no ignition, and there were no reports of injuries or property damage. Repairs wrapped up Jan. 16.

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The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) received the results of the state investigation in May, and on July 6 released a document that raises concerns about the integrity of the pipeline.

Map showing the scope and size of the Millenium Pipeline.

Map showing the scope and size of the Millenium Pipeline.

“Other welds with similar defects may also develop leaks and potentially lead to a rupture of the pipeline,” the report said. ” … It appears that the continued operation of the affected pipeline without corrective measures would pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property or the environment.”

The section of pipeline that failed in January did not pass a visual inspection due to a faulty weld, and was set aside, the report said. Later, the weld ended up picked up and installed.

The PHMSA report said investigators identified other “suspect” welds along the length of the pipeline, and pipeline employees could not produce records to demonstrate the company tested the welds properly.

“These issues and the inconsistencies in NDT (non-destructive testing) documentation raise concerns as to the integrity of other welds throughout the Millennium Pipeline System,” PHMSA said.

Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert based in Bellingham, WA, said deficient record-keeping on a pipeline’s welds indicates a “pretty serious” area of concern.

“The management team of the pipeline company needs to command and demonstrate that they have respect of the material,” Kuprewicz said. “And not producing records on a relatively new pipeline indicates something gone wrong here — seriously wrong.”

Joseph Shields, president of Millennium Pipeline, said they constantly monitor the pipeline to ensure its safety. The company has met with PHMSA and begun the process of taking corrective measures, he said.

“We’ve already dropped the pressure 20 percent, and we’re working with the regulators,” Shields said.

The Millennium, which includes 24- and 30-inch-diameter sections, was under construction in 2007 and 2008 and went into service in Dec. 2008. NiSource Inc. of Merrillville, IN, Detroit-based DTE Energy and National Grid of Waltham, MA, all own the pipeline.

Columbia Gas Transmission LLC, a subsidiary of NiSource, operates the pipeline.

A Columbia Gas Transmission employee discovered the leak Jan. 11 after noticing bubbles in a small creek near the border of Broome and Tioga counties, the PHMSA report said.

While the leak is a serious problem, Kuprewicz said, the pipeline failure “could have easily been a rupture.”

“This whole issue of welds and records is getting a lot of attention, as an example, in the San Bruno case,” Kuprewicz said, in reference to a Sept. 2010 pipeline rupture outside of San Francisco that killed eight people.

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