Pierce County residents must depend on Joe Subsits and his seven inspectors to help protect them from the threat posed by miles of underground pipelines carrying natural gas and hazardous liquids such as gasoline.
The inspecting team is the core of the state’s pipeline safety program, run by the Utilities and Transportation Commission. It oversees more than 24,000 miles of pipeline operated in the state by 28 pipeline companies. Most carry flammable natural gas, some under high pressure.
Subsits, the commission’s chief engineer for pipeline safety, acknowledged the danger the pipelines pose to people living next to or over them.
“If you put a flammable product in the ground, you can’t deny the risk is there,” he said. “However, we have good people here. We have an aggressive program. We are proactive in many ways.”
The underground pipelines in Pierce County range from labyrinths of small lines carrying natural gas to homes to high-pressure, 30-inch lines carrying either natural gas or petroleum products.
A pipeline that brings natural gas through East Pierce County is similar to the one that ruptured Sept. 9 in a San Bruno, Calif., neighborhood near San Francisco. The blast killed at least four people and injured scores more in a firestorm that destroyed 37 homes.
No one has died in a pipeline accident in Pierce County in at least the p ast 20 years, according to the commission. In the state, four people have died in pipeline accidents since 1999.
The deaths of three youths in Bellingham in June 1999 helped expand and strengthen the state’s pipeline safety program, Subsits said. In that accident, a leaking gasoline transmission line operated by Olympic Pipe Line turned a quiet creek where the three were into an inferno.
In the p ast 10 years, 19 “significant” gas or liquid pipeline incidents have occurred in the state, according to the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Those incidents are defined as accidents that:
Caused a death or injury requiring hospitalization.
Did at least $50,000 in damage.
Released at least five barrels of volatile liquid.
Resulted in fire or explosion.
Significant incidents averaged 279 a year nationwide between 2000 and 2009.
One of those incidents occurred in Pierce County in 2003 when a 26-inch Williams Pipelines gas line ruptured in a cleared right of way in the Lakeland Hills area near Sumner. There was an explosion, but no one was hurt and no fire broke out.
After the Bellingham accident, federal and state legislation tightened pipeline regulations, increased the number of inspections and raised penalties for violations.
Standards the Utilities and Transportation Commission established for companies were above the minimum federal criteria, Subsits said. For example, the state requires that operators report on all kinds of pipeline incidents, even those that don’t meet the federal threshold of $50,000-plus in damage.
The idea is to prevent accidents, Subsits said.
The more the state knows about pipeline problems, including incidents that caused little or no damage but were classified as near misses, the better it can spot possible problems or bothersome trends. Spotting complacency or overconfidence is as important as detecting a weakened pipeline or a missed inspection, Subsits said.
Since 2000, state inspectors have reviewed the findings of hundreds of construction crew inspections and more than 400 standard pipeline inspections.
Much of an inspection is a review of the company’s own reports. Inspectors also can physically make inspections and verify information with their own testing. Each inspection can take longer than three weeks .
“We are relying on the integrity of (their) records and hopefully verifying that record when we are out there,” Subsits said.
Under the state’s requirements, each pipeline operator must have a program to identify and analyze threats, do risk assessments and come up with ways to head off future problems.
The state also has taken over from the federal agency inspections of large interstate pipelines that come into the state. Few states are allowed to do that, Subsits said.
Over the years, improvements have been made in inspection tools. Companies can use so-called “smart pigs” that travel inside pipelines to detect weak spots, such as dents and thinning in steel pipes.
Still difficult to spot, Sub-sits said, are stress corrosion cracks such as those that led to the failures in the Williams pipeline. The cracks are very fine and no tool has been designed yet to find them, he said. Operators are required to evaluate their pipelines for the corrosion threat.
They also must apply an electric current to pipes to further resist corrosion. With a proper coating and electricity protection, Subsits said, a pipe can stay in the ground almost indefinitely.
The systems of the five pipeline operators in Pierce County – BP Olympic, Williams Pipelines, McChord Pipeline, Puget Sound Energy and the City of Buckley – have been inspected since 2008, Subsits said.
Violations were found only with Puget Sound Energy, which distributes natural gas to homes and businesses. The 11 violations primarily involved missing inspection deadlines, not updating maps and not having required inspections, according to the commission.
HOLES IN THE SYSTEM
Washington state has a 13-member Citizens Committee on Pipeline Safety, established in 2000 in the wake of the Bellingham disaster. Whatcom County Councilman Carl Weimer is one of the committee’s longtime members.
“We certainly don’t think everything is fine and dandy,” he said. “There are still some significant holes in regulations.”
One hole, he said, is the lack of a state-coordinated “call before you dig” program to help stop third parties from damaging underground pipelines. “We will try to introduce a bill to do that in the next Legislature,” he said.
With 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the country, major damage to a pipeline occurs every other day, said Weimer, who works for the non profit Pipeline Safety Trust.
“The chance of a pipeline failing in any one spot is almost negligible,” he said. “But as we saw in San Bruno, when they do, what the consequences can be.”