Blasts Raise Questions About Pipeline Safety

April 10, 2013

Questions are being raised about the role of emergency shutoff valves in preventing natural gas explosions like the recent one at a Kansas City restaurant.

The Kansas City Star reported that regulations require the valves’ installation, but not their use in emergencies. Instead of shutting valves before a February blast leveled JJ’s restaurant near the Country Club Plaza, crews waited for a backhoe to arrive from Raymore – more than 20 miles away – in a failed attempt to vent the leak. A server was killed and about 15 others were injured.

Gas Pipeline Warning SignJim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates natural gas disasters, said shutoff valves are “as important as brakes on a car” and that he’s “been waiting patiently for two decades for the industry to embrace safety.”

But utility and gas industry representatives said crews can plug leaks effectively without the valves. The downside to using them is their closure stops gas service to potentially hundreds of customers. Service then has to be restored by utility employees going around and relighting pilot lights.

“It takes time and money, and they’re reluctant to use them, especially when there is cold weather,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the Redmond, Wash., pipeline safety firm Accufacts Inc., referring to utility crews’ hesitation when it comes to the valves.

Other methods are often preferred, including venting the leak so it won’t become combustible. Another technique is to dig holes to crimp both ends of a pipe to stop the flow of gas to the leak.

While those methods work well in most cases, the JJ’s explosion has refocused attention on the use of the valves. The explosion at the restaurant happened about 70 minutes after a leak first was reported in a high-pressure distribution line in the street. Missouri Gas Energy had just started digging holes to vent the gas. Another couple of hours elapsed as two holes were dug and a block-long piece of pipe was plugged or crimped.

After the JJ’s blast, the utility declined to say why its crew didn’t use the shutoff valves, and it hasn’t discussed the explosion since then because it’s still under investigation. Utility workers are the only ones allowed to turn the shutoff valves on those distribution lines.

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