Guide to Natural Gas Pipeline Safety
This blog provides a template for understanding the potential dangers of natural gas pipelines and the safety procedures necessary for handling pipeline incidents.
What’s the Problem?
According to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in the period between 1996 and 2015, there were an average of 150 serious natural gas pipeline incidents per year. A serious incident means that it resulted in at least one fatality or serious injury resulting in in-patient hospitalization.
In 2010, a natural gas pipeline ruptured and exploded in a residential area in San Bruno, California, resulting in eight fatalities. A natural gas pipeline explosion in southeast New Mexico, in 2000, killed twelve. Many other incidents over the years have caused serious injury and millions of dollars in damage. What can be done to improve safety and reduce the frequency of these accidents?
Tools for Prevention
NPMS and PIMMA: The Natural Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) is a program by the U.S. Department of Transportation that allows the general public to get information on gas pipelines in their area and gives them resources to contact pipeline operators. The information that the public has access to is more restricted than that of the Pipeline Information Management and Mapping Application (PIMMA), which helps government on a local or federal level to access information on gas pipelines.
MISS DIG: MISS DIG is a Michigan non-profit corporation that gives consumers tools to locate and get information about various utilities, including pipelines. It allows people to map local utilities to spread information and prevent accidents related to pipeline ruptures due to unsafe excavation. MISS DIG also contacts utility companies to have them mark the location of pipelines and other underground utilities with stakes, flags, or paint.
PipeView Access: PipeView Access is a program designed by GE to provide quick, up-to-date information on pipeline facility, integrity, and geographic data for users in a secure environment. This tool is designed for companies that run and operate natural gas pipelines and other gas utilities.
Federal Regulations and Industry Standards
In the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish “integrity management program regulations” for pipeline operators. It was the culmination of much research and analysis among public and private actors, and hailed a turning point in pipeline regulation towards a risk-based program for preventing accidents.
The Gas IM Rule improves pipeline safety by accelerating integrity assessment in pipeline areas that are considered “High Consequence Areas,” improving integrity management in companies, extending and developing the government’s role in evaluating integrity programs, and improving and increasing access of information on pipeline safety to the public.
A historically leading cause of pipeline accidents is third-party excavation damaged. However, because of important initiatives from the government, these excavation-related accidents have declined. State regulator have strengthened damage prevention requirements and have improved enforcement strategies, and the pipeline industry has developed and implement programs for accident prevention and the dissemination of information to the public.
Additionally, the Common Ground Alliance—representing practically every stakeholder group—has collected information, identified new risks and technologies, promoted public awareness, and developed best practices for pipeline incident prevention. This group represents a coalition of the U.S. government and the pipeline industry.
The Three R’s of Natural Gas Safety: Recognize, React, Report
Recognize: A natural gas leak has many indicators. A “rotten egg” smell, dirt or dust blowing out of a hole in the ground, bubbling in a wet area, dead or discolored vegetation in an otherwise green area, a hissing or blowing sound, or flames are all signs of a natural gas leak.
React: Upon recognizing the signs of a leak, one should leave the immediate area as soon as possible, without using anything that could potentially ignite the leak: for instance, electrical devices or any open flame. One should not attempt to find the leak’s source, nor shut off any valves or gas appliances. Starting a vehicle could also ignite a leak. Importantly, one should not re-enter the area until an official says that it is safe.
Report: After recognizing the signs and leaving the area, one should call 911 to report the incident, then the appropriate gas company or government agency.
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