From July 2006: Man recounts jarring explosion of Clark Co. gas pipeline

January 3, 2012 

The likelihood of being hurt or killed by a natural gas pipeline explosion like the one that happened Saturday in eastern Clark County is relatively small.

Of the 546 incidents in the United States reported to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety from 2002 through July 7 of this year, two people died and 26 were injured. Both fatalities involved someone excavating near a pipe.

Nevertheless, Trapp resident Billy Edwards said Saturday's explosion illustrates the potential danger associated with underground transmission pipelines that crisscross Kentucky.

"I was in my house, and I'm about 2 miles from where it went off," Edwards said. "The ground shook. The windows rattled. ... Then I started hearing this train where there are no tracks. And it started getting louder and louder and louder. ... And I saw this flame that was shooting 50, 75, 80 feet in the air.

"If it had been nighttime, it would have been one heck of a light show," Edwards said. "From where I was standing 2 miles away, I could feel the heat impulses."

The cause of the rupture of a 24-inch-diameter line isn't known and remains under investigation. The line, which runs from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast, belongs to Tennessee Gas Pipeline, a subsidiary of El Paso Corp. in Houston.

El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley wrote in an e-mail that the line will be excavated and a portion will be sent to a lab for metallurgical testing. That section of pipeline easement was last inspected from an airplane on July 7, Wheatley wrote.

"Our pipelines, surface facilities, and right of way are routinely patrolled on the ground and from above using aircraft, generally monthly," Wheatley wrote.

Corrosion is the leading cause of accidents involving transmission lines; it accounted for 24 percent of all accidents across the country between 2002 and 2005, according to the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety. Natural forces, such as hurricanes and landslides, and digging around lines are other leading causes.

Laws prohibit the building of "permanent structures" such as houses on pipeline rights of way, said Martin Edwards, spokesman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

"You can farm on top of it and you can put non-permanent structures on it, like a playground or a parking lot, but you can't build a permanent structure on it for obvious reasons," Edwards said.

But as rural areas become more populated, houses are growing closer to pipelines, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

"Now the chance of a pipeline blowing up in your back yard is pretty minute, but if it did, studies show that houses are way too close," Weimer said. "A lot of these pipelines were put in 30, 40, 50 years ago when it was open farmland or open forest land, and now all of a sudden a lot of houses encroaching right up to the edge of the pipeline."

Edwards, the Trapp resident, is concerned about people who hike, ride horseback or drive all-terrain vehicles along the pipeline right of way.

"For years, 20 or 30 years, a lot of kids have gone bike riding, four-wheeling, sled-riding on the pipeline" where the easement is mowed, Edwards said. "What if a kid was out there playing or walking? It would have blown them to China."

Reach Greg Kocher in the Nicholasville bureau at (859) 885-5775 or gkocher1@herald-leader.com.

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