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Editorial: Communication, more data could aid pipeline safety

Jan. 25, 2013 @ 11:02 PM

People in the Sissonville area north of Charleston learned first hand last month how horrific a pipeline incident can be. A 20-inch line carrying natural gas ruptured, triggering a massive fire that destroyed four homes and charred a section of Interstate 77. In what seemed a miracle, no one was injured.

But the incident was a stark indication of the potential devastation from such accidents. And this was not an isolated case: Regulators say there have been 20 "significant" pipeline incidents involving deaths, injuries or major property damage in the state during the last decade.

Now, it's becoming clearer that pipeline safety warrants closer attention.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said this week that spotty reporting requirements and poor communication between regulators and pipeline operators is hampering development of better safety procedures.

The agency said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which oversees pipelines in the U.S., doesn't require operators to provide information about their response times when reporting incidents.

In last month's explosion, it took Columbia Gas Transmission more than an hour to manually shut off the gas that fueled the massive fire. If automatic valves had been in place, the gas supply could have been interrupted within minutes, federal officials say, but law currently doesn't require automatic valves on existing pipelines.

The GAO also said the federal safety agency hasn't done a good job sharing its guidelines, which could help operators decide when and where to install the automatic shutoff valves.

Insufficient data about response time and other factors make it difficult to devise strategies for preventing and minimizing the effects of pipeline accidents in the future.

Regulators should get to work immediately to get a more complete picture on such incidents so that better safety procedures can be put in place. The consequences are just too severe to treat this issue with anything less than urgency.

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