Five Dead In 20 Years: A Look At Pipeline Safety In Kentucky
The self-proclaimed “World’s Longest Yard Sale” cuts straight through Kentucky on Highway 127. The nearly 700 mile yard sale is almost as long as the 77-year-old section of pipeline that carries natural gas through the state. And in the early hours of August 1, hours before the yard sale was set to begin, part of that pipeline exploded just off of Highway 127 near Danville.
Brian Wade and his fiancée Roxann Brasfield had just set up for the yard sale and decided to stay the night in the greenhouse of Wade’s nursery business to keep an eye on their belongings.
Wade awoke to the ground shaking and a deafening roar like the sound of a train derailing.
Then, out of the darkness, a flash of heat and flame filled the valley.
“…it went from 65 degrees and pitch black dark to sweat rolling off of you. It felt like the sun was in your face it was so bright,” Wade said.
The blast blew open the front door and knocked everything off a back wall. The heat singed the leaves on a nearby tree and sent pieces of slate rock and shale through the plastic lining of the greenhouse.
Wade dove on top of Brasfield to protect her from the blast, told her he loved her and that they were going to die. He thought a nuclear bomb had detonated.
After a few seconds, Wade decided they should try and escape. The pair ran for the truck. When he looked back at the flames, it dawned on him.
“That damn gas line blew up back there,” he said.
Fifty-eight-year-old Lisa Denise Derringer of Stanford died as a result of the explosion. Six others were injured.
In the last 20 years, pipeline incidents have killed five and injured more than 30 people in Kentucky, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
But what were the cause of those accidents? How often are these lines inspected and who’s in charge of taking care of them?
In the wake of the recent explosion, WFPL News reviewed Kentucky’s pipeline safety history in Kentucky. Here’s what we found.
How Do Pipeline Incidents Happen?
There are more than 42,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in Kentucky — the same number of miles it would take to travel from New York to Los Angeles 15 times.
About 5,600 miles of the state’s pipelines are large, interstate transmission lines like the 30-inch Texas Eastern Transmission line that blew up earlier this month.
The last major fatalities from an interstate line explosion were in 1985 on the same stretch of pipeline less a hundred miles away in Beaumont, Kentucky.
The line ruptured just after 9 p.m. on April 27, 1985 exploding in a fireball that killed five people in a nearby house and burned three more as they ran from their homes, according to a federal report.
Another portion of the same line blew up the next year, injuring three, in Lancaster, Kentucky.
The National Transportation Safety Board said corrosion damage was likely the culprit in both explosions.
The 30-inch wide coated steel pipeline was built in 1942 and transports gas 775 miles between Mississippi and Pennsylvania. It’s part of a 9,100 mile-long pipeline system that transports natural gas from the northeast to the Gulf Coast.
The majority of the state’s gas pipelines travel within the state. Many are the smaller lines hidden underneath sidewalks and asphalt that deliver natural gas to homes and businesses.
A review of 101 pipeline incidents that occurred from 1999 to 2018 found material, weld and equipment failures and excavation damage to be the most common causes of incidents in Kentucky, according to PHMSA data.
Kentucky Public Service Commission spokesman Andrew Melnykovych said the most common pipeline fatalities happen in one of two ways: Someone hitting a gas line during construction or excavation, or a “behind the meter” problem inside someone’s home or business.
Still, Melnykovych said pipelines are the safest means of transporting vast amounts of fuel.
“It’s much safer than transportation by rail or truck or any other kind of vehicle,” he said. “Pipelines as a general rule are very safe.”
Just this last year, the Kentucky General Assembly put the Public Service Commission in charge of enforcing the state’s “call before you dig” law. Since July of 2018, the commission has received nearly 1,000 reports of excavation-related damage to natural gas lines and has issued more than 400 citations.
State and federal regulators have also pushed utilities to replace the most dangerous sections of pipeline: those made with iron and uncoated steel.
The Public Service Commission encourages the state’s major gas utilities to replace these lines and the state has seen a steady decline in their use as a result. Still, Kentucky had nearly 14,000 miles of bare steel pipelines and about 107 miles of cast iron or wrought iron pipelines as of 2018.
It Could Have Been Much Worse
In the aftermath of the August 1 explosion, Kentucky Pipeline Safety Program Manager James Rice oversaw the scene until federal regulators could get there.
Rice said it looked like a war zone as he drove over the ridge to the site of the explosion.
“You could see vehicles that were still, you know, intact but everything was just burnt completely inside and out, something I’d never seen before,” he said.
The concussive force left behind a crater 50-feet long and 13-feet deep. Flames as tall as 300 feet scorched homes, railroad tracks, trees and vegetation for 30 acres around the site.
But Rice wasn’t there to inspect the site. His responsibility lay in managing it until federal inspectors came to town. Investigators have not yet found the cause of the explosion.
Texas Eastern Transmission engineers last inspected the Enbridge-owned line earlier this year before the explosion in August. An inspection last year identified a small dent with metal loss, but didn’t require action under federal rules.
It’s up to federal inspectors to review inspections along interstate pipelines, but it’s not clear how often that happens along the approximately 5,600 miles of interstate pipeline in Kentucky because the federal data is not broken down by state.
The remaining miles of pipeline — about 37,000 miles — that stay within Kentucky are inspected by state workers. But they don’t physically inspect the pipelines. Melnykovych said regulators don’t have the staff or the funding to do that. Instead, inspectors review a roughly 80-page checklist to ensure pipeline operators are following all the necessary state and federal regulations.
“We look at their maintenance programs, we look at whether they are complying with the safety notification protocols,” Melnykovych said.
If they’re not in compliance, they have to explain why they are out of compliance and could face potentially large fines.
But the time that state regulators have spent on pipeline inspections has been on the decline since 2015. Last year, state inspectors spent less time inspecting pipelines than any year since at least 2010 — about 11 days per 1,000 miles of pipeline, according to PHMSA data.
Acting Director of the Division of Inspections John Lyons said that’s because the division lost four senior inspectors in 2018. Much of the replacement and training happened within the same year, which could have impacted overall inspection times, he said.
Rice, the state’s safety program manager, said Kentucky was still able to complete all the necessary inspections.
“We just weren’t able to get out and do additional inspections, construction inspections and those kind of things because we didn’t have the personnel to do it,” Rice said.
The commission now has six inspectors reviewing natural gas pipelines that travel within the state, he said.
Wade, the nursery owner, has his own ideas about inspections on natural gas pipelines in the wake of the explosion. He thinks pipeline inspections should be going up, not down.
“Every year that pipeline is in the ground it’s a year older. And obviously it’s going to be in a little worse shape,” Wade said. “You know my vehicle is in a little worse shape than it was last year.”
To say “only” five people died in the last 20 years, well, Wade said that’s relative.
“If it had been my mother that died back there, I would not think that one person dying would be a small number,” he said.
But Wade also said the explosion could have been a lot worse. Several people in the community planned yard sales for later that day.
“Had it happened during the day, there could have been a couple hundred people back there,” Wade said.