U.S. receives report into Adair County pipeline blast - WDRB 41 Louisville News

U.S. receives report into Adair County pipeline blast

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KNIFLEY, Ky. (WDRB) -- The hillside where a natural gas pipeline erupted in February is healing. Pockets of new grass have replaced areas that were scorched and blasted when a section of the transmission line broke.

The pipeline’s operator, Columbia Gulf Transmission, oversaw the restoration work. And the company has followed through on a $25,000 donation to Knifley’s 20-member volunteer fire department and given lesser amounts to other first responders.

Despite those signs of progress, questions remain about the line’s soundness, whether the blast affected a separate gas pipeline nearby and the compensation the company has offered families whose homes were destroyed or damaged. And, perhaps most important, why did Line 200 break?

“We have worked countless hours to examine what happened in Adair County and to ensure that we take every precaution to keep an incident such as this one from happening again,” Columbia Pipeline Group spokeswoman Katie Dupuis Martin said in a statement.

The cause of the blast remains under investigation. But the company has sent an analysis of the incident's possible cause to the U.S. Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which will ultimately determine the cause and any penalty.

The report won't be immediately available to the public, said Damon Hill, an agency spokesman.

Martin declined to say whether the factors that led to the explosion in Adair County exist elsewhere on the line. She said Columbia Gulf will answer specific questions after federal officials release the documents submitted by the company.

Federal regulators have yet to allow Columbia Gulf to resume shipping gas through the line that failed Feb. 13 about 100 miles south of Louisville.

The Feb. 13 failure occurred in a pipeline Columbia Gulf uses to carry natural gas across central and eastern Kentucky. It was the second “significant” incident in the line in the last two years, according to federal records.

(A “significant” event is one that kills or hospitalizes people, causes more than $50,000 in damage or results in large releases, fire or explosion, according to the pipeline safety administration.)

A portion of the same line burst in January 2012 near Irvine, Ky. – about 90 miles northeast of Knifley -- after the ground shifted, investigators concluded. Martin said in a statement that residents “should not be concerned with the overall integrity of the line,” but she didn’t elaborate.

Columbia Gulf Transmission is part of the Houston-based Columbia Pipeline Group. It operates 3,460 miles of natural gas lines in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, where it oversees three separate pipelines that cover roughly 1,390 miles.

Overall, 26 incidents involving the company’s pipelines since 2006 have resulted in one death and nearly $91 million in property damage, according to federal data. (A 2007 pipeline failure in Delhi, La., resulted in one death and a fine of $806,500.)

There have been five incidents in Kentucky since 2005, including one that occurred when a valve malfunctioned in 2012 at a compressor station about nine miles from Knifley, according to federal records.

The Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash., advocacy group, analyzed federal pipeline data for Columbia Gulf shortly after the Adair County rupture and concluded that the company had more than twice as many “significant” pipeline incidents as the national average for such pipelines.

Federal inspectors oversee interstate gas transmission lines, but the work is essentially a review of the operators’ own documents and records – “kind of like an audit,” said Samya Lutz, outreach coordinator for the pipeline trust.

“You’ve got to ask whether this operator is managing their risks appropriately,” she said. “Because of the lack of prescriptive regulations, that can be very difficult to know.”

Columbia Gulf has defended its safety record, saying that it and its partners have “developed one of the safest and most reliable energy transportation networks in the world.”

The blast occurred about a quarter-mile from a gas line operated by Texas Eastern Transmission, which cuts through Ludora Feese Perkins’ property. Perkins remembers being lifted out of her bed when the pipeline ruptured.

Texas Eastern reviewed data from the most recent inspections of its lines in the area “to confirm that there were no concerns,” spokesman Phil West said in an email. The Columbia Gulf incident was “such a distance away” that it didn’t pose a threat, he said.

West did not respond to questions about whether a new inspection was warranted, given Perkins’ account.

Perkins, a retired schoolteacher who remembers the gas line on her property being installed more than 50 years ago, said she doesn’t worry about living near pipelines.

“It’s been here a long time,” she said. “I never really thought much about it.”

“EVERYTHING WAS ON FIRE”

The Adair County pipeline blast ripped through a hillside along Ky. 76. As he watched from a distance, Knifley fire department training officer Darrel Baker said he saw “fire all the way around. … Everything was on fire.”

No one was killed or seriously injured, but two houses were destroyed and a third house was damaged and is no longer occupied. Several other buildings and vehicles also were destroyed.

About $1.8 million in property was damaged, according to federal estimates.

Kathy Tucker recalled using buckets of water to put out fires that broke out at her house just south of the explosion site. The house shook, its rafters broke and a rock the size of a football landed at the foot of her bed, she said.

Tucker and her husband are now living with family nearby; the roof of the uninhabited house was damaged and was covered with a blue tarpaulin earlier this week.

Tucker said a Columbia Gulf representative was “very helpful” in the weeks following the blast, working to get bubble wrap and move furniture into storage. But the relationship began to deteriorate after the company made its first offer for the damage to the home in late February, she said.

“My first reaction and first words I said to them when they made that offer is: ‘You have slapped me in the face again,’ because the offer was so low,” Tucker said.

The company has since made two other offers, including one earlier this month that was the highest to date. (She did not disclose the amount.) Tucker said she doesn’t plan to accept that most recent offer and is weighing a lawsuit.

Tucker said she differs with the company over whether her house -- where she and her family lived for 40 years – can be repaired or should be rebuilt.

“Even though it’s standing, it’s as much gone as any of the two houses that burned to the ground,” she said.

One of the houses that burned sat on 92 acres that belong to Jim Harden Jr.’s parents, who live in Louisville. Harden, who visited the farm as a child, said Columbia Gulf made a $300,000 offer, but that wouldn’t allow the family to rebuild the house, which was renovated about a month before the blast.

Harden also said his family is considering suing Columbia Gulf.

“We just want them to rebuild what they destroyed,” he said.

A third property owner whose house burned down after the blast could not reached for comment.

In written responses to questions from WDRB, Martin said the company has closed roughly 75 percent of the claims made after Feb. 13. She said all residents who made a claim have been contacted by a representative.

“We are still ready and willing to help and will continue to work with each of these affected parties to come to a fair settlement,” she said.

In interviews, fire and emergency management officials in Adair County said they are generally pleased with Columbia Gulf’s work offering training classes and responding when the pipeline ruptured.  

“They’ve been straight up with us,” Knifley fire chief C.R. Drake said, including making the $25,000 donation to his department that was pledged months ago.

Adair County Judge-Executive Ann Melton said she spoke with Columbia Gulf representatives about two weeks ago. At that time, she said, the donation to the Knifley department hadn’t been made.

Melton said the company also offered to make a contribution to Adair County, but that the amount put forth wasn’t acceptable. She declined to elaborate.

“I’m disappointed in their response to the community -- as far as making any monetary donations to the community or to emergency management,” she said.

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