Questions of blame arise in wake of fatal Johnson County pipeline blast

Pipleline blast aftermath

Credit: WFAA

The violent explosion left a crater surrounding the ruptured pipeline.

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by Elizabeth Souder and Theodore Kim

The Dallas Morning News

Posted on June 12, 2010 at 11:08 AM

Updated Saturday, Jun 12 at 11:25 AM

Plastic, ankle-height flags wave at the center of an investigation of a Johnson County explosion that killed a man and injured eight others.

The man, James Robert Neese, was using drilling equipment to install utility poles on Monday when he punctured an underground pipeline. His company, C&H Power Line Construction, had called a hotline to request that the operator and part owner of the pipeline, Enterprise Products Partners LP, send someone out to mark the exact location of the 36-inch pipeline.

Did the Enterprise worker stick flags in the ground or spray paint the right spot? Did he even show up?

Investigators with the state Railroad Commission, which oversees some pipeline issues, haven't answered those questions yet, and Enterprise isn't saying.

This isn't the first time regulators have questioned whether Enterprise marked a pipeline properly.

"It is a terrible tragedy, and most of these are preventable if we follow the rules," said Railroad Commissioner Michael_Williams. He added that Texas has the largest pipeline system in the country, and "there's no doubt that it's a safe system."

Enterprise, a Houston company that operates 49,100 miles of pipeline both onshore and offshore, declined to comment on the investigation. C&H also wouldn't comment.

Federal pipeline regulators acknowledge that their own rules are confusing. And industry insiders say the way Texas implements those rules is peculiar. Even so, none of the regulators is taking official steps to change.

As natural gas companies drill more wells in urban areas, pipelines proliferate. Marking the pipelines above ground is critical to keep workers safe as they install utility poles, construct homes and buildings, even dig swimming pools.

The first step of marking a pipeline is placing permanent signs along the route. If you stand next to one marker, you should be able to see the next marker down the line.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration cited Enterprise late last year for failing to properly install permanent markers on a pipeline in Kansas.

However, the administration, which regulates all U.S. natural gas pipelines, withdrew the allegation. The regulator said its so-called line-of-sight test "has resulted in confusion within the industry and differing application among the regions."

"It doesn't really give a clear picture for operators to actually go about putting markers in the ground and making sure they are spaced apart correctly and they are able to be seen from a distance," said pipeline administration spokesman Damon Hill.

But six months after acknowledging the rules are confusing, the agency hasn't begun the formal process of changing them.

Anyone who wants to dig near one of those permanent signs must call a hotline to request that the pipeline operator mark the full path of the line.

Before the blast near Cleburne on Monday, C&H contacted Texas Excavation Safety System, a pipeline call center, state officials confirmed. The nonprofit call center passed on the request to Enterprise. Lee Marrs, the center's president, declined to provide further details.

It's common for pipeline owners to hire outside contractors to mark the lines.

But on bigger excavations, or in cases when large gas lines are in play, pipeline companies often send their own employees to oversee the digging. The Johnson County pipeline that exploded measured three feet and was considered a major transmission line.

"Almost without fail, [pipeline companies] are out there on the bigger jobs because they know it's almost immediate death if something happens," said Ron Peterson, a noted utility locating expert based in Kansas City, Mo.

Rules and standards for marking pipelines are constantly changing, adding to the potential for mistakes. And industry insiders say that the state's call center system is in need of reform.

Many states keep one call center. Texas, until recently, was the only state with three. The state opted for multiple independent systems to spur competition. For-profit companies run two of the centers.

While the call centers share information, industry experts say, the setup breeds confusion and miscommunication.

"It makes things more complicated than it should be," said Peterson, who serves as executive director of the National Utility Locating Contractors Association.

The One Call Board, a state panel that oversees Texas' call network, decided earlier this year to end its relationship with one of the centers, Pittsburgh-based One Call Systems Inc.

"They basically weren't answering the phone," said Donald Ward, executive director of the state's call system oversight board.

The company faces penalties and the prospect of a state lawsuit, Ward said. He added that Enterprise regularly used One Call Systems.

No one is seriously discussing changing the Texas system. Railroad Commissioner Williams said his agency has been stumping for a decade to take over the call center system, but has only won the authority to police calls to the system and investigate problems.

The call centers grapple with about 2 million requests for pipeline markings each year. Williams said his commission sees about 18,000 safety incidents a year, and the number of problems per thousand hotline calls is declining.

Still, this week was particularly deadly for the Texas pipeline business.

One day after the Johnson County explosion, two men were killed and three injured while digging for clay in the Panhandle. The construction workers hit a 14-inch DCP Midstream LLC natural gas pipeline near Darrouzett.

Final tally for the week: three dead, 11 injured in Texas pipeline explosions.

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