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How to Protect a Pipeline

Jacob Runnels | GateHouse Media Published: July 1, 2017 12:42 PM
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Pipelines aren’t perfect, and that’s evident with something like the recent gas spill with Energy Transfer Partners’ Rover gas pipeline in April.

The Rover pipeline is a project that would involve an interstate pipeline transporting natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales, and it recently had a burst when, according to the Canton Repository, construction workers had “inadvertently released two million gallons of drilling mud into 6.5 acres of wetland.” Jason Harris, technical oversight engineer for Dominion Energy, said incidents where a third party causes an incidents like the Rover pipeline spill are common.

“Third party damage is probably the more common operator issue, and sometimes the operator can’t prevent it,” he said. “Most of the time if there’s an issue with third party damage it’s because... they struck the pipeline or removed a portion of the coating, unbeknownst to the operator, which causes problems down the road.”

Harris said some pipeline incidents can come from other reasons, such as metallurgic flaws and corrosion. He said metallurgic flaws can happen from coke or other manmade or natural products experiencing a large change in chemistry. With this, gives “opportunities for small fissures or other metal deformations or characteristics” that would lead to a weakness in the pipe’s walls.

He said corrosion of the pipelines involves “degradation through erosion,” which there are multiple ways to correct this, ranging from protecting it with a fusion-bonded epoxy, to rock shields, and to simply pouring concrete around the pipe if there are buoyancy issues.

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According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, states, from 2011 to 2016, corrosion accounted for 315 reported pipeline incidents, or 21 percent of all 1,493 the reported pipeline incidents within those five years. That number was comprised of 127 (or 8.5 percent of the total) external damage and 188 (or 12.6 percent of the total) internal damage reports.

However, there are 137 (or 9.2 percent of the total) incidents involving incorrect operation, which can involve “damage by operator or operator’s contractor.” This, along with 142 (or 9.5 percent of the total) reports of outside force damage and the 101 (or 6.8 percent of the total) reports of natural force incidents, total up to 380 (or 25.5 percent of the total) of all incidents reported where the operator had no control over the effect of third parties and other forces.

Overall, corrosion incidents in that five year time frame resulted in $402 million in losses. Incidents a company couldn’t account for — damage caused by operators, contractors, and nature — resulted in more than $353 million in losses.

Compared to that data, however, the PHMSA states there were 505 (or 33.8 percent of the total) reports for materials failure, such as defective tubing, malfunctions of control/ relief equipment, and other equipment failures. This totaled up to $399.4 million in losses.

When creating the parts that make up a pipeline, there are ways to deal with problems such as corrosion. Harris said the regulatory codes they follow include creating cathodic protection for pipelines that protect them from degradation. There are also “smart pig” equipment that helps detect leaks.

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He said pipelines get in-line inspections every seven years, but not every pipeline gets inspections as frequently. He said this is “based on the code requirements.” The company would take the inspections and then have them audited by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO).

“These are all things that are put in place to try to eliminate those demographics that are issues for us in the field,” he said.

Harris said, when pipelines are about to be built, there are many federal requirements a company must go through beforehand, such as contacting the PUCO, as well as contact the Ohio Utilities Protection Service. He said Dominion Energy talks to the Environmental Protection Agency and many other organizations to get its “environmental ducks in a row.” However, these regulations vary based on the type of facility it is, either interstate or intrastate.

Ultimately, though, with the Rover pipeline burst, according to InsideClimate News, “more than 100 local and environmental groups are demanding federal regulators immediately halt all construction” of the project because of its effect on the environment. With that, Neil Durbin, senior communications specialist for Dominion Energy, said the way to combat that mentality with new pipeline projects is to assure people that the company responsible is complying with all federal mandates for upholding safety with construction.

“We comply with all the relevant safety requirements and environmental regulations,” Durbin said. “In doing so, that goes a long way toward building that credibility and trust within the community and the governmental entities we deal with on pipeline projects.”

Harris said companies are making strides toward advancing their technology to prevent more mistakes, but there are some hard sells, such as people who simply don’t want to have a pipeline built near them. He said PHMSA often gets “directly involved with changes to the code,” and is there to initiate research and development grants for broadening research on pipeline safety.

He said, with each incident comes the opportunity for PHMSA to build “a better mousetrap,” to help make new legislation to prevent mistakes from happening again.

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