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Editorial: Gas line explosion poses big safety questions

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 10:05 PM

Talk about a wake-up call.

The gas line explosion in Kanawha County Tuesday graphically demonstrated the potential dangers of the millions of miles of pipelines running underground across the country, but miraculously, with no loss of life.

The flames burst about midday near Sissonville, destroying four nearby homes and literally melting a section of Interstate 77. Fortunately, most residents were at work or school at that hour, and motorists on the highway were able to stop just in the nick of time.

Several people were treated for smoke inhalation, and the property damage was extensive, but few would argue that this could have been much, much worse.

Considering there are about 15,000 miles of natural gas pipelines stretching across West Virginia, there will be great interest in finding out what went wrong and what needs to be done to minimize future accidents.

Already, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are looking into why no alarm sounded in Columbia Gas Transmission's Charleston control room when the explosion occurred and why it took more than an hour to stop the flow of gas to that area.

There are also questions about how transmission lines are inspected, who inspects them and how often. That issue has come up with other recent and more deadly accidents in other states, and critics argue current inspection levels are far from adequate.

Considering the age of some of these lines, those inspections and necessary upgrades are critical. Although the line near Sissonville was apparently put in during the 1990s, much of Columbia's nationwide system was installed before 1960, and the company is seeking federal approval for a massive plan to modernize its transmission lines, according to a report in the Charleston Daily Mail.

Recent federal legislation takes several steps to improve pipeline safety by increasing penalties for violations, requiring automatic shut-off valves on new pipelines and providing more public access to safety information. Coincidentally, officials were meeting in Washington this week to discuss the implementation of those measures.

The pipeline industry stresses that accidents have been rare and these transmission lines are the most efficient and safest way to move this valuable energy resource around the country. But as the system expands, the public needs to know that safety is the top priority in construction, maintenance and monitoring.

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