When it comes to pipeline safety, NGLs are a completely different animal than natural gas

Published 8:24 am Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Guest columnist

The Aug. 24 guest column about American energy safety, while informative, only emphasized natural gas. In contrast, the proposed Kinder Morgan Pipeline No. 1 project would transmit dangerous and highly volatile NGLs (Natural Gas Liquids) all across Danville and Boyle County.

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NGLs consist of unrefined compounds just as they come out of the earth. This toxic brew poses life-threatening issues for humans, livestock, farmland and water life. Unabated, a single leak at the pumping station above Herrington Lake could lead to our multi-county region’s primary water supply becoming the second “Dead Sea” on the planet.

Destructive differences in natural gas and NGLs are vast. Calling them “equal” could be said to be as far afield as stating that an average little league team was as capable as the winner of last year’s Major League Baseball World Series.

Without question, safe drilling can capture and bring cost-efficient natural gas to our homes, schools, churches, hospitals and American businesses. In turn, that will be beneficial to our local, state, and national economy. Furthermore, shedding our dependence on Middle East oil works both for our fiscal needs and national security.

Last Thursday’s guest column provides sobering insight about structural shortfalls within America’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA). Reading from that column, “The minimum thresholds established by PHMSA are severely lacking.” 

Points to ponder:

• There is no mandatory state requirements for incident reporting;

• there is a lack of a required detailed plan (following an incident) to improve measureable outcomes;

• there is no assurance of utilizing new technology and safety equipment; and 

• there is a lack of credible data regarding incidents within a given state. 

Punctuating these concerns, some states still meet “enhanced or effective” standards for identifying and reporting pipeline locations by merely spraying paint and/or placing flags in the ground.

There was no mention of old pipeline conditions, their depths or level of reliability. And there was no comment from PHMSA on preventing access to above-ground pumping stations, huge exposed valves and easily breached chain link fences.

You can visit the major station above Herrington Lake. There are no guards and only a modicum of impediments to climbing the wall. Whether an act of vandalism or terrorism, we the citizens of this region would suffer unfathomable consequences if such an event were to ever occur.

Within the recent natural gas guest column, much was mentioned about the awkward-at-best, joint, overlapping state and federal jurisdiction. While that was disconcerting, there is a major plus within each state’s regulatory power and control: “excavation and construction fall fully within the state’s regulatory authority.” That aspect is huge for myriad reasons:

• Excavation and construction have been among the leading cause of pipeline incidents for years.

• The pipeline proposed to convey NGLs was laid in the 1940s when the vast majority of certified welders were overseas fighting World War II.

• Excavation techniques 70 years ago allowed abrasive rocks to be filled back into the trenches of pipelines, potentially piercing their walls over time.

• Metals and welding compounds used seven decades ago would not be allowed when laying pipelines for dangerous products today.

• Deterioration of over 900 miles of pipeline (running from the Gulf of Mexico to the northeast above Ohio) cannot be 100-percent certified as being safe today. Already at least one section of Pipeline No. 1 had to be replaced due to its collapse here in Boyle County.

• Reversing the flow (to go from the northeast to the gulf) can put significant stress on any pipeline not designed for this, especially an aging one.

• Consideration must be given to ancient fault-lines, evidence of significant rock-falls and winter ice heaving of underground strata.

• There must be zero tolerance for any potential NGL leakage. Human lives, farms, livestock and our Herrington Lake water supply would be subject to catastrophic loss in the event of an NGL pipeline rupture.

• Pipeline No. 1 goes through heavily populated areas of Danville and Boyle County. Neighborhoods, schools, churches, nursing homes, fast food restaurants, health clinics and a wide variety of independent businesses all are in close proximity to this pipeline.

Perhaps one of the greatest risks lies in Danville and Boyle County’s back yard. Our primary waste-management disposal site literally lies on top of Pipeline No. 1. Heavy steel containers are loaded onto even heavier transport trucks that travel atop the underground, WWII-era pipeline that could be used for NGLs. Depth surveys in this acre-plus area would likely reveal that this extremely vulnerable section would not meet today’s standards for overburden and absence of backfill containing abrasive rocks from its generations-old installation.

Adding to these risks, a rock quarry is nearby. Fully loaded, often tri-axle 

concrete trucks frequent the road at the disposal site’s entrance, over the top of Kinder Morgan Pipeline No. 1.

Fellow citizens, we live in one of the most pristine communities and regions of America. Why put our lives at risk? Our farmlands? Children whose playground covers Pipeline No. 1? Amenities found in few other places? And long-term, why further supplant economic development?

One heartening note: under PHMSA’s purview, “The states have unilateral

authority to design their own legal and regulatory systems so long as they don’t run astray of PHMSA’s requirements.”

All citizens in Danville and Boyle County must spread the word about the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the potential hazards it poses here and throughout our commonwealth.

Relief from the demons that our environment and economy would face if a

substandard pipeline was ever to be approved could come from our United States Supreme Court. Last week’s guest column provides the key: “The Supreme Court clearly stated that the Commerce Clause allows the federal government to regulate all things having a ‘substantial relation’ or that ‘substantially affects’ interstate commerce.” That court finding includes all of us.

One unacceptable fact of such an enterprise is that in gaining funding and

security, liability insurance in case of catastrophic damage would be essential for the company opening this or any NGL pipeline. The downside of such coverage would be that in the event of deaths and/or destruction, those suffering losses would face attorneys from billion-dollar entities, bound and determined to protect their corporate investments. Years into a lawsuit, few individuals or even corporations could hold their own in such a litigious environment.

The end message from what we’ve learned over the past several years is that to ensure our community remains truly our own, we must become educated, then assertive regarding our local, state and federal rights. Banding together with all counties in the path of the NGL pipeline proposal, we can muster the strength required to maintain safety and security in our lifestyles.

Please engage your elected officials in conversations about this imminent issue.

Tom V. Ellis is a retired health care executive. He lives in Danville.