LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Critics of the contentious Bluegrass Pipeline point to the safety record of the project's developers, claiming a history of leaks, spills and even explosions at their facilities raise concerns about plans to route a natural gas liquids pipeline through Kentucky.
In fact, federal regulators have fined subsidiaries of Boardwalk Pipeline Partners L.P. and the Williams company – the firms heading the effort -- nearly $2.4 million over the last five years for 18 incidents that include failing to monitor corrosion and waiting to repair a natural gas line showing metal loss.
Williams executive Bill Lawson defended the pipeline companies' safety history in an interview, and he deflected concerns about a Williams subsidiary's handling of a natural gas liquids leak in western Colorado that lasted for two weeks before it was stopped earlier this year.
"We have very good safety records over a long period of time. We take it very, very seriously," Lawson said. "Both of our companies take safety very seriously. … We want our employees to be protected, we want the community to be protected, individual residents to be protected."
Lawson said the pipeline companies comply with federal rules governing the movement of hazardous liquids by pipeline. Specifically, Lawson said, the companies "make sure that we meet or exceed all of those rules" in the section of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.
To be sure, none of the violations from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in the past five years involve hazardous liquids.
All 18 of the cases in which the pipeline safety administration issued citations dealt with natural and other gas transportation and safety. In many of those cases, the companies did not contest the alleged wrongdoing.
But Bluegrass Pipeline critics say it's irrelevant whether the safety violations involved natural gas or natural gas liquids -- hydrocarbons separated from natural gas before being transported for eventual use in products ranging from plastic bags to gasoline.
"Shouldn't we require of them a proven safety record?" said Judy Jett, whose family's farm in Nelson County is on the pipeline route. "I don't see it."
The records of the Bluegrass Pipeline companies in recent years are comparable to their competitors in the pipeline industry, according to an analysis of 21 gas pipeline operators by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash., group that advocates for pipeline safety.
In promoting the Kentucky project, supporters point out that infrastructure carrying potentially volatile liquids underground isn't new to the state.
But it is rare.
Only 38 of the 26,750 miles of existing pipelines in Kentucky carry natural gas liquids. Overall, about 910 miles – less than 4 percent -- handle petroleum, natural gas liquids and other hazardous liquids, according to the federal pipeline administration. Gas transmission, gathering and distribution lines make up the vast majority of pipeline miles in the state.
Meanwhile, hazardous liquids pipelines have accounted for a disproportionate rate of noteworthy pipeline incidents in Kentucky, the data shows:
There were 18 injuries and $36.9 million in property damage over that time from all pipeline incidents; 12 of those people injured, and $24.9 million in damages, were linked to hazardous liquids pipelines
A 2004 explosion of a natural gas liquids pipeline in Floyd County, Ky., injured 12 people and destroyed five houses, Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, told Kentucky lawmakers earlier this year.
In an interview, FitzGerald said natural gas liquids pipelines pose different risks than those transporting natural gas.
"I think it's a legitimate question that communities and landowners will have about the relative safety records of the companies, and it presents a significant issue for communities where these pipelines are traversing," he said.
The Bluegrass Pipeline would add an estimated 275 additional miles of hazardous liquids pipeline in Kentucky, carrying as much as 400,000 barrels a day of natural gas liquids through the state along a mostly underground route from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" operations in the eastern U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico.
Jett insists her family farm won't be part of the route. She said she is concerned about accidents such as the 2008 rupture of a Williams natural gas pipeline in Appomattox, Va., which left five people with first- and second-degree burns, according to federal records.
Federal regulators handed down a $952,500 penalty amid allegations that Williams failed to properly protect the line and monitor evidence of a "known corrosion problem" dating back to 2004.
Jett said she fears how a similar accident could harm water supplies and that the cost of a potential cleanup could be passed on to taxpayers.
"I don't want to be experimented on," Jett said. "They have to be perfect, and they are not."
But are the companies' safety records out of line with their competitors?
At the request of WDRB.com, the Pipeline Safety Trust analyzed incidents among 21 companies regulated by the pipeline safety administration and found that Williams' companies had the ninth-lowest rate of incidents per mile of pipeline and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners had the fifth-highest from 2006 to 2011.
The number of federal enforcement actions launched against Williams during that time -- 21 – was the fourth-highest, and the company's proposed penalties -- $1.6 million – were second only to the $2.1 million against NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage.
So far this year, Williams has been at the center of two high-profile incidents at its facilities.
In June, two Williams employees were killed in a blast and subsequent fire at a plant near Baton Rouge, La. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Williams subsidiary Bargath more than $7,850 that same month for three serious violations related to the natural gas liquids spill from a pipeline near its Parachute Creek, Colo., gas plant.
Bargath has contested the OSHA violations, which allege the company directed subcontractors to remove contaminated groundwater and soil without proper measures in place to control such hazards. "This condition potentially exposed employees to benzene and other volatile organic compounds," the OSHA penalty notice states.
Bargath discovered and stopped the leak, which stemmed from a broken pressure valve, on January 3 and thought initially that 25 gallons had escaped, according to Colorado health officials. Only later did the company realize that the leak had occurred for two weeks, according to the state, and resulted in the release of more than 36,000 gallons – and as many as 7,590 had seeped into the soil.
Lawson, the Williams official, said the Parachute Creek pipeline and the proposed Kentucky project are "entirely different operating regimes." The Colorado pipeline is 4 inches in diameter; plans call for 24- and 26-inch diameter sections of the Bluegrass Pipeline in Kentucky.
The Bluegrass Pipeline, he said, will have "very sensitive equipment" that would quickly detect leaks – similar to sensors since added to the Parachute Creek pipeline.
For its part, Boardwalk Pipeline Partners has been fined by federal regulators more than $116,000 through its subsidiaries this year. Since 2009, the pipeline safety administration levied penalties of nearly $662,000 against the company's subsidiaries.
"We have learned from past incidents and work continuously to improve the safe operations of our pipelines and other assets, continuously striving for zero safety incidents," spokeswoman Molly Ladd Whitaker said in an email.