Pipeline blast: Both parties claim proper procedures followed

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on June 8, 2010 at 6:26 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 8 at 9:59 PM

Gas line explosion

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Following Monday's deadly natural gas pipeline blast in Johnson County, both the pipeline operator and the power line company that punctured the line claim they did everything according to regulations.

The warning signs are everywhere — not just in Johnson County, but throughout the Barnett Shale — providing alerts to the  subterranean tapestry of dangerous natural gas transmission lines.

They are potential land mines.

The cautions are conspicuously posted along roads and fence lines.

Yet on Monday afternoon, electrical contractor Robert Neese dug a hole that punctured a 36-inch, high pressure line. It erupted into an inferno that claimed the life of the 45-year-old Oklahoman.

The warning signs posted all over the rural landscape are just part of the prevention measures taken in Texas.

Those doing the digging are required by law to call the Texas Excavation Safety System so buried lines can be identified.

Lee Marrs oversees one of the call-in systems called The Texas Education Safety System. "It looks like procedures were followed in this case," he said.

C & H Power Line of Oklahoma, which was digging the hole, said it placed the call seeking underground line locations before it began to dig.

The pipeline company, Enterprise Partners, says it then marked the location of its 36-inch transmission line.

So why didn't the drill operator know he was about to make a fatal mistake?

"The people in this business were are as shocked as anyone else, because the system is very safe," Marrs said.  "We take almost two million calls a year, and for this to happen once every five years, this would be a rarity."

Despite the best intentions of lawmakers and operators, things can still go wrong.

That's why investigators from the Texas Railroad Commission are at the scene, along with the agency's commissioner, Michael Williams.

"The Railroad Commission staff is on the site right now ... to make sure that a request was actually made for the spot where they are digging, that a line-locate was actually made at the spot where they are digging, and the digging occurred where the request was made," Williams said.

Commissioner Williams said despite the call-in line locator system, there are roughly 18,000 line punctures or mishaps in Texas each year.

He said the investigation into Monday's fatal explosion is expected to take about 45 days.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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