California Explosion Sparks Questions in Missouri
COLUMBIA - A recent natural gas pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb that killed eight and left dozens of homes damaged gives cause to look into pipeline safety in Missouri. But, finding information about where pipelines are and how they are doing is harder than you would imagine.
It is hard to pay attention to all the markers on the ground. In fact, Public Service Commission Chairman, Robert Clayton said there is so much underground, from water lines to telephone cables- it is hard to mark it all. “Gas is what we call a critical resource” said Clayton. “People need it to stay warm.” Clayton said natural gas is so critical he can’t reveal where bigger and high pressure natural gas pipelines are located and the status of the pipe for security reasons.
Clayton said he wants Missourians to know his commission has the responsibility to regulate gas safety for the distribution companies and in-state transmission systems. Distribution lines are typically smaller and run in neighborhoods while transmission lines are larger and run between cities. The explosion in California occurred in a transmission line, installed in 1956. Clayton said big and small pipelines run through neighborhoods wherever gas is used. Clayton said Missouri had a wake-up call about gas safety about twenty years ago. “Six or seven significant explosions that occurred in Kansas city area caused the commission to reevaluate the work they were doing in gas safety,” said Clayton. Missouri began replacing service mains and pipes not made of the safest materials. The commission replaced cast-iron, steel, and copper, phasing out what could be corroded over the last 20 years.
Clayton said in 2004, the federal government required analysis of in-state transmission lines and high-pressure pipes that deliver natural gas into urban larger communities. “It is my understanding that 50 percent of pipes in the most risky and populated areas had to be checked and approved by 2007,” said Clayton.
AmerenUE, is in charge of many gas pipelines in Mid-Missouri that run through busy neighborhoods and in more rural areas. Clayton said Ameren has evaluated 80 percent of the pipelines in highly-populated areas. Mike Cleary works for Ameren in Jefferson City. He said it doesn’t matter where the pipes are or how big they are. He said it all comes down to safety. “Any gas is something you should be aware of,” said Cleary. “It doesn’t matter where those big pipes are because a little pipe could leak.”
Cleary and Clayton stress the importance of awareness, yet no one can know exactly where pipes are or about the integrity of pipes. Clayton said locations and statuses of pipes are highly confidential but can be revealed on a need-to-know basis. The only time someone would need to know is if they are digging. “The number one reasons for leaks or problems is third party interference. It is not usually the integrity of the pipe.” Cleary said people digging in their backyard or construction projects can cut into pipelines and endanger lives.
That is where “Call Before you Dig” comes in handy. It is a program that encourages people to find out about the ground they plan to dig into. Committees in the federal government are investigating the cause of the California explosion. The federal efforts are also suggesting changes in policy that include more regulation and transparency when it comes to natural gas pipelines.
For now, all Mid-Missourians can seem to do is make sure to be aware of their immediate surroundings and report anything out of the ordinary right away. “Natural gas doesn’t even have an odor,” said Cleary. “People add a special smell like rotten eggs so people can be aware.” Cleary said never to assume someone else is reporting a suspicious odor or sight. Although it may be nearly impossible to find out about the state of natural gas pipelines, Cleary and Clayton both said the best option for Mid-Missourians is to stay alert and aware of anything out of the ordinary.
The map below indicates the location of every major gas pipeline incident in Missouri between 2000 to 2009. Click on a point for information on the date, company, cost, injuries and fatalities related to that specific incident.