Corrosion – Fatal Impact on Concrete Wall Flaw

A deficiency in the concrete wall construction of the basin at the Gatlinburg Wastewater Treatment Plant led to the basin wall collapsing, killing two employees in April, a report from the state issued Thursday says.

“Walls were cast in a manner that produced a cold joint between the cast wall which fell” and three interior intersecting walls, according to the report from the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA).

TOSHA announced in early October that it found no safety violations at the plant, and this week released a five-page report that was the basis for that finding. When TOSHA announced in early October there were no safety violations, it didn’t give a probable cause of the basin wall collapse.

The new report does. What its inspectors call a “cold smooth joint” led to leakage of acidic waste across the joint, and “as a result, corroded the rebar splice couplers over a number of years.”

The couplers were not believed to have failed at one time, but gradually over the life of the basin, the report said.

When the findings of no safety violations were announced earlier this month, Veolia spokeswoman Karole Colangelo said, “Although the findings from TOSHA reinforce our emphasis on employee safety, it does not dismiss the fact that two Veolia Water employees perished in this tragic accident, and company employees continue to mourn their deaths.”

“It was assumed the two operators were making adjustments to the effluent flow inside the equalization basin,” the report says. While the men were working, the wall collapsed and fell on the building in which they were working.

The collapse sent about 850,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the Little Pigeon River and forced the city to pump more untreated water into the river until it could come up with a temporary solution a few days later.

According to the workers’ last journal entry at 5:30 a.m. that day, the basin contained 1.3 million gallons of water and was 85 percent full. The water level was recorded at 25.5 feet. The report says interviews with operators and plant officials show the average water level was 4-8 feet.

The plant is owned by the city but managed by Veolia Water North America Operating Services LLC. Veolia officials told the state inspectors that both Crowder Construction Co., that built the plant and Flynt Engineering Co., that designed it are out of business. The basin was finished in 1996.

TOSHA learned that after the basin was finished in 1996 the north wall had cracks and a lateral displacement/bowing of the wall and walkway. Veolia told the state that buttresses were installed that “corrected” the problems with the wall and walkway.

TOSHA noted that the flow control building where the workers were is still not accessible, but the state says “we have no probable reason to think that access to this area would reveal any additional information that would result in citation being issued to Veolia.”

The report says the contractor used “splicing couplers” instead of dowels, as required in the original drawings, noting that while that was a “deviation” from the design, it was probably not the cause of the collapse. The report did say that “formation of a cold joint resulted in accelerated corrosion of the couplers.”

TOSHA reviewed the original design of the basin and found the design of walls “adequate.”


Stretching, Staffing and Pipeline Integrity Management

Pipeline Integrity Management
People who do not know MATCOR don’t yet recognize how highly qualified we all are in programmed corrosion prevention, and in reporting on the results

According to MATCOR’s Nick Judd, Houston-based corrosion engineer, “The company used to pick up less than 200 miles a year in pipeline integrity management (PIM) projects. Today, we are already doing more PIM; we’re growing to serve much more, and it’s no stretch to say we’ve got the capabilities.”

In deploying a broader range of experience-based capabilities, MATCOR knows that Pipeline Integrity Management is a crucial tool for operators and asset managers who have to do more in monitoring pipeline corrosion and assuring pipeline integrity. Judd maintains that MATCOR is present and accounted for in all the ways that reinforce the corporate theme, “Integrity that Works.”

“Today, everyone we hire is NACE-certified, starting with entry Level 1 and going through succeeding Levels 2 and 3,” he notes. “Our PIM professionals have to be Level 1 at least. We also staff with a mixture of graduate engineers in various disciplines and field-experienced personnel. Then we combine the two so we can go the extra distance for every PIM customer. Both Judd and MATCOR Executive Vice President Glenn Schreffler agree that the company’s personnel have to have both the “book learning” and the field experience to deliver effective PIM services.

“People who do not know MATCOR don’t yet recognize how highly qualified we all are in programmed corrosion prevention, and in reporting on the results,” says Judd.

The foundation is always NACE certification. Why? NACE has known for many years that there’s a need for supporting and reinforcing the integrity in corrosion prevention. NACE standards meet the needs of all segments of the infrastructure industry; they are written and approved by instructors and professors, government officials and regulatory experts, and especially by industry professionals…including some MATCOR experts. Judd maintains, “There need to be levels of testable knowledge leading to certification in corrosion, cathodic protection, and coatings and linings – this is part and parcel of our approach to PIM. So we make certain today that our technicians are NACE-certified by corporate mandate. Our internal OQ disciplines are just as rigorous.” (Judd is one of MATCOR’s Operator Qualification specialists as well.)

Integrity management of pipelines is an organized, integrated and comprehensive process that counters threats to pipeline safety. But as is now plain, PIM is about people. To be successful, MATCOR people not only meet widely recognized PIM standards but are able to apply them meticulously. “In PIM assignments, the crews I send out may have to meet weather challenges, or equipment difficulties – but never problems of applied knowledge or data acquisition or reporting.”

Effective PIM service delivery encompasses every one of the knowledge/data/reporting demands. “We carefully and successfully completed one ECDA (External Corrosion Detection Analysis) project for a very short segment of a customer’s pipelines, notes Judd. “We dotted every i, we crossed every t – we met and exceeded the expectations of the customer’s Corrosion Integrity Manager.”

“Even so, we were still pretty gratified when we got a callback from this customer, an opportunity to do more work, because our job performance was so good. Our new, larger project involves ICDA, (internal corrosion direct assessment), which also means extra computer modeling. I went over the PIM game plan with this customer and noted that we were going to need much more data to ensure success on this newer, large-scale project.”

“The customer agreed to help meet these requirements. And since he knows our data is superbly accurate, he is using the information we collect and analyze to revamp the alignment sheets on a 35-pipeline system.”

“This customer manager also feels that the MATCOR people working on this project understand the delicate differences among some of ‘his’ transportation system elements, which include gap and transmission mains, in-plant systems and distribution lines.”

“And for him – just as we’re doing for everyone now – MATCOR goes the extra distance, ensuring that we turn the data into analyses and report those within 48 hours of receiving the data.”

Whether MATCOR is conducting ECDAs, ICDAs, root cause analyses or ongoing maintenance and repair supervision, every element is documented and reported. So for MATCOR in PIM, there is an additional factor at work. “US Department of Transportation regulators are frequently on our sites,” says Judd, “closely monitoring how we actually conduct these processes and programs. We have an in-depth understanding of their reporting demands and we can use this savvy to help operators pass regulatory scrutiny with flying colors. It is one more level of reassurance – again supported by MATCOR’s multiple levels of experience and dedication to going the extra mile.”

For Judd, none of this is a stretch. His obligation to integrity reinforces the company’s. “Whenever I leave a meeting, I always want to be certain I have said the same things today that I said last year, and will continue to say next year, in terms of commitments made and delivered upon.”

“When MATCOR says, ‘We will do it,’ it’ll get done. Period.”

Workers repairing the damaged Maui pipeline in New Zealand

Gas supplies to industrial consumers look set to be partially restored this afternoon as workers repair the damaged Maui pipeline in north Taranaki.

Acting Energy and Resources Minister Hekia Parata told a media conference in Auckland this morning there were adequate gas supplies already in the pipeline north of the breach to allow some major gas users – including dairy factories – to be brought back on line.

”But this will rely on as moderate use of the gas as possible – we still need to conserve it,” she said.

Engineers worked through last night carefully excavating the site of the damaged section of pipeline, digging in increments of just 300mm to ensure no further damage would be caused to the Maui line or to a small Vector gas line just 5m away.

Vector CEO Simon McKenzie said it was hoped the excavation work will be completed this afternoon, at which time work can start on replacing the damaged section of line.

The leak appears to have been the result of a failed weld, he said.

”But it is far too premature to come to any conclusions as to why this happened,” Mr McKenzie said, adding that there have been no issues with the Maui line in its 30-year history.

Gas industry experts face a frantic mission today to find and fix a gasline rupture crippling industry in the top half of the North Island.

The Maui gas pipeline, which runs from the Maui production station at Oaonui and feeds gas to much of the North Island, was closed early yesterday morning when a leak was discovered near White Cliffs north of Urenui.

By noon the closure of the line forced 15 of Fonterra’s northern factories reliant on gas to shut down or only partly operate, and Waikato dairy farmers last night began dumping milk.

Other industries also began to suffer and Employers and Manufacturers Association manufacturing manager Bruce Goldsworthy described the situation as “a bloody disaster”.

At this stage residential supplies are not affected.

Hekia Parata, the acting Energy Minister, travelled to New Plymouth for briefings on the crisis.

Last night pipeline operator Vector could not say when gas would be turned back on. Although the leak has been isolated to a section of pipe near White Cliffs, spokeswoman Sandy Hodge did know the extent or type of damage suffered by the pipe.

“For safety reasons a full excavation of the pipe cannot be undertaken until a detailed site evaluation has been carried out. We need to have a careful look at the pipeline before we bring diggers in,” Ms Hodge said.

She said engineers were working on “every scenario they can come up with” on what type of fix the pipe will need so repairing can begin as soon as the fault is understood.

Ms Hodge said the leak had not posed an explosion risk and as far as she knew it was the first time the pipeline had been compromised.

Yesterday residents near the pipeline on Pukearuhe Rd reported hearing a huge roar of gas being vented but little else.

“They were blowing stuff through there today. It made a hell of a noise. A big roar,” said Ian Besley.

“There was a message on my phone from Vector to say they were doing something. They had some sort of problem.”

Mr Besley said he had heard the pipeline being vented in the past and did not think it unusual.

Neighbor Michael Kuriger said Vector called his wife in the morning to say there had been a major leak and they might be flaring off some gas. But it was only the appearance of a Taranaki Daily News car on Pukearuhe Rd that made him think anything unusual might be going on.

“And I saw a truck go down the end of the road with a steel cage arrangement that they might use to protect men working in a hole. But I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t link that with what my wife said about work from Vector,” Mr Kuriger said.

The high pressure pipeline was opened in 1978 and is owned by Maui Development Ltd.

The section containing the leak has been isolated from production supplies in Taranaki.


The Maui pipeline is the largest-capacity high pressure gas pipeline in New Zealand.

Commissioned in 1973, it runs from the Maui production station at Oaonui to Huntly. At Huntly it is connected to other pipelines that feed gas to thousands of consumers throughout northern North Island.

It is 84cm in diameter, opened in 1978, and is owned by Maui Developments Ltd.

It is operated by gas transmission company Vector.

It does not only carry Maui gas, but gas from all Taranaki’s fields.


FAA Warns of Corrosion on Boeing 757 Tails

U.S. regulators want airlines to check for corrosion on movable tail parts on hundreds of Boeing 757 jets that could result in pilots losing control of aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed on Monday a mandatory safety directive covering devices that control tail sections, called horizontal stabilizers, that help raise and lower the noses of more than 700 Boeing 757s flown by U.S. carriers. Eventually, the checks are expected to apply to hundreds of additional Boeing 757s operated by overseas airlines.

A Boeing Co. spokeswoman said it supported the proposal, which builds on its nonbinding safety recommendations that carriers regularly inspect and lubricate the affected parts. She said that Boeing clarified those recommendations last year. An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment.

The move comes nearly 11 years after a maintenance lapse helped cause a similar device to fail on the tail of an Alaska Airlines McDonnell Douglas MD-83 off the Southern California coast, rendering the plane uncontrollable and sending it into a dive that killed all 88 people aboard. Investigators eventually determined that faulty aircraft design, slipshod maintenance and inadequate federal oversight all contributed to the high-profile accident.

In 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board called on Boeing and other aircraft makers to launch a “systematic engineering review” to prevent such potentially catastrophic failures of flight controls on thousands of jetliners.

According to the FAA, part of the 757’s horizontal stabilizer-control system is similar to a screw-style mechanism that failed on the Alaska jet, and may be subject to similar types of failures.

Since that accident, Chicago-based Boeing’s design reviews and safety analyses found “extensive corrosion” on one 757 that “could lead to loss of control of the horizontal stabilizer and consequent loss of control of the airplane,” according to the FAA.

The agency’s proposal is expected to be released for comment Tuesday, though it could take months to become final.

The proposal is unusual because it generally calls for tougher inspection standards and, in some cases, appears to envision tighter compliance deadlines than those previously issued by Boeing to detect and replace suspect parts. In January 2010, Boeing issued various updated service bulletins calling for repeated inspections to look for worn, cracked, corroded or loose-fitting parts, called ballscrews, on certain 757 jetliners.

Such maintenance bulletins aren’t binding on carriers, but airlines typically follow the advice of manufacturers unless the FAA or other regulators issue alternate directives.

As part of its proposed directive, the FAA’s criteria for immediate replacement of parts is twice as stringent as the latest standard Boeing issued last year. The FAA also wants airlines to ensure that replacement parts are new or have been properly overhauled, and the agency envisions initial inspections of some planes within six months of the final rule.


All aboard! Coastal rail service shakes off corrosion

Southport Lumber Company’s first rail car shipment has left the North Spit, and is on it’s way to Eugene.

Things got off to a rocky start Thursday morning, as the train left about four hours behind schedule.

General manager of the railroad, Tom Foster says, that’s to be expected when you’ve had fours years of inactivity on the rail line.

“Last night, we got everything lined up and ready to go and we were anticipating leaving early this morning and being out of here and on our way to Eugene with 12 loads. We’ve got the 12 loads, we’ve just had a little slower time than what we thought,” explains Foster.

He goes onto say, that the line is suffering from what he calls “rusty rail syndrome.”

Because it’s so wet here on the coast, corrosion piles up on the tracks, making the connection to the crossings inoperable.

For now, the port will have two people manning each crossing.

But all the trouble is not in vain. Foster says, Southport is pleased with the rail because it’s giving them another option.

“Before, the only option out of here was truck. Now all of a sudden, you know, they’ve sold 12 loads, they’ve got more loads sold next week, we’re gonna have more cars down here. We worked out some agreements with Union Pacific Railroad that’s gonna allow us to do that, so there’s gonna be a lot more movement both here,” replies Foster.

You can expect to see one train a week, running south on Monday or Tuesday, and heading north on Thursday or Friday.

And just to give you a comparison, this 12 load train hauls the equivalent of 36 trucks.


Waterville council considers $80 million natural gas line

Officials proposing to build an $80 million natural gas pipeline through central Maine got both support and questions at a City Council meeting earlier this week.

Mark Isaacson and Anthony Buxton, partners in Kennebec Valley Gas Co., are seeking a tax increment financing agreement with Waterville and 11 other communities on the proposed line, which would extend from Richmond to Madison and include 12 miles of line in the city.

Natural gas, they said, is less costly, cleaner and more efficient than oil.

City Manager Michael Roy said the city’s TIF Advisory Committee reviewed the project and voted to support it.

Councilor Karen Rancourt-Thomas, D-Ward 7, said she liked the idea that natural gas is less costly than oil and ultimately, would help companies maintain jobs.

“That’s what we have to look at in this situation,” she said.

Chris McMorrow, who owns rental properties, said heating buildings is costly and the introduction of natural gas would be welcome.

“So, I’m real excited as a landlord who buys a lot of energy,” he said.

But mayoral candidate Karen Heck cautioned councilors to seriously consider Isaacson and Buxton’s proposal, as well as a plan by Madison to build a pipeline.

She said she is concerned about where the gas comes from, how it is extracted and who extracts it.

Isaacson said a “host of companies” extract the gas and it is all mixed in the pipeline.

“We don’t have control over where the gas comes from,” he said.

Mayor Dana Sennett, who is running for re-election in November, said Wednesday that he thought the presentation Tuesday was informative.

“I think having a natural gas pipeline within the city’s limits and accessible to the city’s businesses and residential community is a long term asset as far as reducing energy costs,” he said.

Andrew Roy, who is running for mayor against Heck and Sennett, said he wants to learn more about the proposal before deciding if it is good for Waterville.

“There’s no way you can predict the price of it, 20 years down the road — 30 years down the road,” he said.

Madison is not asking communities along the pipeline route for tax breaks. Besides Waterville, Richmond, and Madison, they include Gardiner, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Augusta, Sidney, Oakland, Fairfield, Norridgewock and Skowhegan.

Isaacson said his company, which was formed last year, completed a preliminary design for the pipeline this year and received conditional certification in August from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which allows the company to form as a public utility.

The company has completed a feasibility study but has not yet secured all funding needed for the project. Agreements with key users, identified as Huhtamaki, Sappi and Madison Paper Industries, are critical to the project.

The tax increment financing districts would require municipalities to give back a percentage of local property taxes to the developer to help finance the pipeline. TIF districts also act as a tax shelter for towns, so increased property values in the designated areas do not result in increased tax commitments.

Isaacson said the company hopes to get TIF agreements this year, secure financing in 2012 and build the pipeline in 2013.

Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, asked what happens if the key users such as Madison Paper and Sappi do not come on board.

“Those commitments are essential for financing of the project,” Isaacson said.

O’Donnell asked what the advantages are over Madison’s plan.

Isaacson said Madison does not propose to provide residential or distribution service, at least in the beginning.

“I think their status as a public utility is unclear and their schedule is clearly behind ours,” he said.

Resident Scott McAdoo asked who would be responsible if a gas explosion occurred.

Buxton said gas pipelines are regulated by the local, state and federal government, and the standards are very rigorous.

“I would point out that we tend to hear about a natural gas accident when it happens, but it is extremely rare,” Buxton said.

He said Maine is about the only state in the nation without a natural gas infrastructure.

Council Chairman Charles Stubbert, D-Ward 1, said the city used to have a gas company and most people used gas. To his knowledge, there was never an explosion, he said.


US Senate approves pipeline safety bill

The Senate unanimously approved a pipeline safety bill that stemmed from a spate of incidents, including last year’s deadly explosion in San Bruno, California.

The measure had been held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who lifted his hold after reaching agreement with Democrats to add a key recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Usually wary of regulatory oversight, Paul said he wanted to strengthen the legislation. His initial objection was that the bill was written before the NTSB completed its report on the San Bruno explosion, Paul said in a statement. “While I am in favor of as little regulation as necessary, if we are going to impose regulations, we should do it right,” he said.

But it does not include an NTSB recommendation to require automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves on existing pipelines in heavily populated areas, a response to the nearly 95 minutes it took utility workers to manually shut off gas spewing from the San Bruno site. That requirement has faced industry opposition.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed state legislation to require automatic shut-off valves in vulnerable areas and ensure that gas companies pressure-test transmission lines in California.

“This is a huge step forward for the safety of pipelines and communities across the nation,” said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the measure’s chief sponsor. “This bill strengthens oversight and addresses long-standing safety issues that leave the public vulnerable to catastrophic pipeline accidents.”

The amended bill requires that older, untested pipes operating at high pressure — such as the one that exploded under San Bruno — be strength-tested to establish safe maximum operating pressures, Sen.Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the vote.

“Simply put, Californians shouldn’t have to worry about streets exploding under their feet because of lax safety regulations,” Feinstein said in a statement.

A similar measure awaits action in the House.


WWII spitfire MJ789 plane to be preserved from corrosion

For 66 years, the remains of a brave Spitfire pilot and his plane lay on a river bed off Normandy in France.

The pilot, identified as Flight Lieutenant Henry `Lacy’ Smith, 27, from Sydney, was buried with full military honors in France in April.

Now a team of experts in Melbourne are doing their best to preserve what is left of his plane.

The Spitfire MJ789 was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on June 11, 1944 in the battle that followed D-Day.

It crashed into the River Orne, near Caen, in northern France during the Battle of Normandy, one of the largest battles of WWII.

Smith and his aircraft were deemed missing in action until they were found last November in the Orne Estuary by local museum curators.

The aircraft remains were shipped to Australia in September where experts at the RAAF Museum at Point Cook in Melbourne are removing the dirt, slime and foreign matter.

Despite its history, the plane – which has two bullet holes in its right wing from where it was pounded with anti-aircraft fire – is in good condition.

“It looks fairly good for something that’s been laid in the salt water since 1944,” museum director David Gardner said.

“It’ll be conserved in its current form and the way we put it on display will tell the story of the RAAF’s contribution to the war effort in Europe.

“It will also add to the fact that we are actively looking for those that are declared missing during the conflict.”

The conservation effort will involve cleaning the aircraft, then hoisting it into a tank of fresh water for between six and eight months to desalinate it before it is preserved for the long term.

“We’ve got to get rid of the salt so we can stop the corrosion and corrosion’s the biggest killer,” Mr Gardner said.

Smith was from No 453 Squadron, the first Australian squadron to go into action on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – providing tactical support for the troops landing on the Normandy beach head.

He was buried with full military honours at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Ranville, Normandy, in April.

Gary Walsh, a registrar at the museum who is working on the preservation, said he felt fortunate to work on the project.

“It’s a very poignant moment for me,” he said.

“There were some brave people involved with this and unfortunately this person lost his life defending his country.

“It’s a sacred thing from our perspective too.”

Staff hope to have the plane on display in the next six to eight months.


PG&E to replace 1,200 miles of plastic gas pipe

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will undertake a multiyear effort to remove more than 1,200 miles of plastic pipeline that has been linked to numerous failures nationwide, including two explosions in Northern California in the past six weeks.

The company’s decision to replace the pre-1973 pipe, marks a departure from a policy that PG&E had reaffirmed as recently as last week to assess its natural gas-distribution system before deciding which lines to replace.

The replacement project is likely to run into the millions of dollars, although PG&E would give no cost estimate. The company is likely to ask the California Public Utilities Commission to pass the cost along to customers.

The plastic pipe is used in distribution systems that deliver gas to homes. The manufacturer of the pipe warned customers nearly three decades ago that pipe made before 1973 was prone to cracking and sudden failure.

In 1998, the National Transportation Safety Board, noting instances in which this particular pipe and other plastic pipes had ruptured, urged pipeline companies to assess their lines and replace those with problems.

Two blasts
PG&E set aside $1.5 million in customers’ money starting in 2009 to assess its plastic pipelines’ reliability, but spent only a fraction of that and made little progress on the studies.

Then, on Aug. 31, one of these specific plastic pipelines in Cupertino that had sprung numerous leaks filled a condominium with gas, which ignited minutes after the owner had left. The building was destroyed. Less than a month later, another line installed in 1981 in Roseville (Placer County) exploded beneath a commercial intersection, touching off a seven-hour fire. No one was hurt.

PG&E said last Friday that it would start replacing pre-1973 plastic lines as soon as next year, after it presents a plan to state regulators. The company expects to take more than three years to complete the work.

First on the list
In the meantime, PG&E will replace 12,000 feet of line around the condominium complex in Cupertino and a 400-foot piece at the site of the Roseville fire. It will also replace distribution pipe at a mobile home park in St. Helena where a leak was discovered last year, PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer said.

The company said it plans to digitize 15,000 maps of the plastic pipeline systems and create a database to track leaks. PG&E will also replace some of the 6,676 miles of newer lines based on how often they leak.

Eisenhauer said the effort is in the planning stages and carries unknown costs and time frames.

“This is something we have been looking at,” he said. “Part of the plan is determining where in our system there is a higher leak rate, and then prioritizing it.”

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has announced plans for legislation to require state regulators to act on National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, which could lead to an order for PG&E to remove its troubled plastic pipe.

‘Great news’
“I think it’s great news – it’s certainly an indication of good will in the future,” Hill said. “But we still need the legislation, to make sure safety recommendations are followed.”

Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline consultant who advises the advocacy group The Utility Reform Network as well as the federal government on safety issues, said PG&E may be able to replace some of its lines without digging up the old pipe.

In some cases, new plastic pipe can be inserted in old lines, and in others PG&E can create a new distribution network around the old one, Kuprewicz said.

“It’s a fairly easy process,” he said, “but the devil’s in the details” – specifically, finding out which lines need to be replaced first.

“It’s very important that it be matched with a well-thought-out leak survey process,” Kuprewicz said.


Feds focus on new products, not aging pipelines

The only government research program dedicated to improving the safety of U.S. natural-gas pipelines has no plans to study whether key federal investigative recommendations made in the wake of the San Bruno disaster might save lives, officials say.

In drawing lessons from the September 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline in San Bruno that killed eight people, the National Transportation Safety Board reached two major findings:

1. The government should end the practice of exempting aged pipelines from rigorous pressure tests.
2. Operators should add more automatic pipeline shut-off valves to save homes and lives in a disaster.

But the government’s main pipeline regulator, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, says it has no intention of sponsoring research into whether those are good ideas. Instead, agency officials say, their energy is going toward working with private companies in developing new pipeline safety products.

Pressure is mounting on the agency as members of Congress and safety experts call for more information about older pipelines in the aftermath of the San Bruno explosion and other disasters. Even industry has concerns. Cliff Johnson, president of the industry-led Pipeline Research Council International, said “there’s been kind of a hole” in the research program when it comes to “heartburn issues” like aging pipelines.

Too ‘theoretical’

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration admitted to the safety board during the San Bruno investigation that it lacked big chunks of information about grandfathered pipes, including their location.

But the agency said in a statement responding to a San Francisco Chronicle query that although doing a study on grandfathered pipe “may have some merit,” it was too “theoretical” to fit the focus of its research program.

Instead of looking into the merits of forcing operators to test their older lines, the pipeline agency said it plans to focus on research to develop products and procedures that can be marketed for pipeline repairs, protection and inspections. The federal government will finance the research but involve companies that might market the results.

Using New Technology

The idea is to “operationalize new technology, as opposed to undertaking theoretical research,” the agency said.

In other words, the results of these federally financed studies “can be quickly put into use,” said Olivia Alair, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, the pipeline agency’s parent department.

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