Handling Pipeline Incidents Requires Plans for Minimizing Injuries, Damage

Director Department of Fire and Rescue Services Montgomery County, Md.

Handling Pipeline Incidents Requires Plans for Minimizing Injuries, Damage

Markers denote location of three liquid petroleum product pipelines.Stake indicates pipeline close to town house

Transportation of hazardous materials by pipeline will greatly increase in the next few years because it is such an economic way to move large quantities of products quickly. However, this very fact makes pipeline transportation such a problem.

In a news release, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported last Sept. 28 that “the volume of hazardous materials which can be released in a pipeline accident actually can be much greater than other modes because of an operator’s current limited ability to detect a release and to isolate the release point from the rest of the system. In a pipeline accident near Devers, Texas, in 1975, more than 600,000 gallons of natural gas liquids were released. That was the equivalent of 20 jumbo railroad tank cars, or 60 highway tank trucks. In March 1979, a liquefied petroleum gas accident in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, resulted in the evacuation of 20,000 persons when gas vapors entered sewer lines and threatened persons up to 8 miles from the site of the pipeline rupture.”

Double standard cited

The board also noted that many highly volatile liquid pipelines were laid in areas that were then rural but are now more densely populated. However, the board said the United States Department of Transportation’s Materials Transportation Bureau has “failed to require that existing highly volatile liquid pipelines meet the same minimum safety standards proposed for new pipelines. This will result in a double standard of safety for new and existing highly volatile liquid pipelines.”

As the years pass and the existing pipelines decay, the number of incidents will increase.

Incidents such as the following indicate that the problem is getting worse.

Employee killed

An explosion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) vapors destroyed a transformer building at the Columbia LNG Corporation Facility in Cove Point, Md., at 3:35 a.m. last Oct. 6. One worker was killed, another was seriously injured, and other buildings at the facility were damaged.

An NTSB investigation determined that an employee found a leak in a high-pressure LNG pump in the high-pressure pump building about 3 a.m.

In its safety recommendation P-79-31, dated Oct. 12, 1979, the NTSB reported that the employee radioed notice of the leak to another employee in the monitor house. Because of radio interference, the monitor house understood only that a pump was leaking, and the employee would phone from the transformer building. When the employee reached the transformer building about 3:30 a.m., he phoned the monitor house employee and said that he was going to pull the circuit breaker on the leaking pump. At 3:35 a.m., an explosion occurred in the transformer building.

Two explosions and fire at 3:05 p.m. May 11, 1979, destroyed three buildings in Philadelphia. Seven persons were killed and 19 were injured. A portion of Margaret St. collapsed, exposing a large cavern underneath the street.

“Natural gas which had leaked from a broken, 8-inch, cast-iron gas main under Margaret St. had migrated through a damaged 8-inch sewer lateral and into the basement of the building where it was ignited by an undetermined source,” the NTSB stated in a safety recommendation, P-79-29, on Oct. 4, 1979. “The soil which had supported the gas main had eroded over an extended period of time and contributed to the collapse of the pipe.”

A Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America 24-inch natural gas pipeline pulled out of a compression coupling during a line-lowering project under State Highway 181 in a rural area near Dallas, Iowa, at 12:20 p.m. April 18, 1979. The gas ignited and burned a 900-foot by 400-foot area. Five of the eight injured workers were hospitalized and two cars, a pickup truck, and a trailer housing construction equipment were destroyed.

Coupling pullouts blamed

“The gas company’s accident records indicated that this 24-inch pipeline had experienced 12 previous failures since it was constructed; nine of these involved compression coupling pullouts,” stated NTSB safety recommendation P-79-20 on Aug. 18, 1979. Five of the six failures that occurred in Iowa were coupling pullouts. On March 3, 1979, in Mills County, Iowa, the 24-inch pipeline pulled out of a compression coupling where the pipeline extended over a hill (overbend). On March 4, 1979, in Washington County, Iowa, more than 200 miles away, the same line pulled out of another compression coupling in an overbend. Both ruptures occurred in fields and no injuries were reported. Five of the 10 coupling pullouts were located either at a sidebend or at an overbend. The causes of these pullouts are still under investigation.”

Photos by Warren E. Isman

Home destroyed

An accumulation of natural gas in a North Richland Hills, Texas, house was ignited by an unknown source at 1:10 a.m. January 19, 1979. The explosion and fire destroyed the house, killed one resident and severely injured another.

NTSB stated that a swing connection of the 1¼-inch service line to a 6-inch Lone Star Gas Company gas main was made with two 90-degree elbows to allow for horizontal and vertical movement of the line as the soil shifted. However, according to the NTSB safety recommendation P-79-28 of October 4, 1979, this swing connection did not prevent a circumferential fracture at the threads of a 1¼-inch nipple above the service tap on the main. The gas moved along the pipe and into the house.

Natural gas escaping from a corrosion hose in a 7-inch steel gas main accumulated in several business section buildings in London, Ky., and then exploded and burned at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 16, 1979. Five buildings were destroyed and two adjacent buildings were damaged extensively. Two persons were injured slightly.

The NTSB, in its pipeline accident report, NTSB-PAR-79-2, Aug. 16, 1979, declared that the probable cause of the accident was the ignition of an accumulation of natural gas which had leaked from the corrosion hole “when the pressure was increased suddenly from 4 ounces to 17 psig in one step. Contributing to the accident was the failure of gas company personnel to conduct an adequate leak survey, using combustible gas indicators and to check adjacent sewer manholes during the period the gas pressure was increased.”

Fire department responsibility

Now that the problems and potentials for pipeline incidents have been outlined, the fire department responsibilities must be determined.

Preplanning is the key to handling an incident. Preplanning runs the entire gamut from a knowledge of the location of transmission mains to a knowledge of how to handle a spill, leak, or fire in the various products moved by pipeline.

Transmission pipelines bring the product from its source (wells, refinery) to a distributor. When a transmission main crosses underneath a roadway, the crossing is indicated by a marker. The marker contains certain basic information which should be on file at your dispatching center such as:

  1. Type of product: petroleum or gas,
  2. Name of operator, and
  3. Emergency telephone number.
Pipeline markers can have various shapes and colors, depending on company policy.

Photo by Warren E. Isman

Photo by Ken Isman

Right-of-way markers

Sometimes, the pipeline right-of-way is indicated by some type of marker. This marker does not usually have any specific format. However, fire service personnel can use it to trace the pipeline route.

A petroleum product line could have a different liquid at any given time. Petroleum products, such as gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, and aviation gas, are all shipped through the same pipeline, depending on demand along the route. Liquid pipelines can be up to 35 inches in diameter.

Natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas are also shipped by pipeline. These products can be shipped at pressures up to 1200 psi in pipelines up to 48 inches in diameter.

Special purpose pipelines are used to ship such products as ammonia. The size of the line, working pressures, commodity hazards and shipper resources must all be determined during the preplanning stage.

Preplanning considerations

In preparing a preplan for a pipeline incident, the following subjects should be considered:

  1. Possible incident location:Areas to be concerned about include those close to population centers, buildings or other high hazard areas. This does not mean that rural areas can be neglected, but the problems presented here will not be as severe as in the urban areas.
  2. Response: A pipeline break in an urban area will require a great deal of personnel. The massive fire and evacuation requirements dictate that a heavier than normal structural response be sent initially. This usually will mean activating mutual aid plans right from the start. In addition, procedures for coordinating the evacuation with law enforcement personnel must also be developed. Remember, communications with your mutual aid companies and the other governmental agencies will be active. Work on those problems before you have an incident.
  3. Travel route: Because pipeline incidents can be so massive, the customary routes to the scene could be blocked. Assignments must be made to ensure that apparatus will approach the scene from different directions. Alternate routes must also be established.
  4. Water supply: The preplan should identify all water sources in the vicinity of the pipeline. This includes pressure and static sources. If relays will be necessary, then the number of pumpers and their locations must be established. Tanker shuttles are another option and their availability and response time need to be included in the plan. Finally, estimated water flow must be established so that a realistic determination can be made about the fire attack.

Pipeline size-up steps

With a good preplan, size-up at an incident can rooceed quickly, in an orderly fashion. The steps for sizing up a pipeline incident are:

  1. Approach: The particular approach selected by the officer will be dependent on the location of the incident, product marked, whether material is burning, weather conditions, accessibility to the site, and terrain. Some of this material will be known from the preplan. The rest will have to be ascertained immediately after the call is received.
  2. Apparatus positioning: Based on the preplan, apparatus responding to the incident should have a specific assignment based on the need for rescue, the numbers to be rescued, the occupancy of the exposures (residential, commercial, health care, etc.) and the availability of water. While it will not be possible to eliminate all ignition sources, make sure that the apparatus does not supply the spark. Do not enter the vapor cloud. Park out of the immediate area.
  3. Exposures: In addition to the size-up of exposures for apparatus positioning, other facts about them must be taken into consideration. These include the life hazard problem, heights of the exposures, construction, built-in protection systems, exterior hazards—such as exposed storage of hazardous materials and overhead wires—sewer systems, and distances between exposures.

Operations options

It is vital to recognize that the correct procedure for handling the incident may well be to evacuate, control the fire in the exposures, and wait for the shutdown of the pipeline to extinguish it.

In rural areas where exposures are not a problem, the best procedure might be to stand by at a safe distance and await pipeline personnel.

However, if a running spill fire is threatening exposures, then an aggressive attack should be tried. This will involve damming the runoff, protecting the sewer system, and extinguishing the spill fire.

Remember, if the spill is an already ignited liquid, do not put out the fire at the pipeline unless an exposure is directly threatened. If the spill is an already ignited gas, do not extinguish the fire as that will permit the unignited gas to spread out, find a source of ignition, and result in a great number of injuries.

Control of a pipeline fire could entail the need for large quantities of foam. Incident commanders must know what types of foam are available, in what quantities, and where extra supplies are located.

Preparation for incidents

A pipeline incident can quickly escalate to major proportions. Fire service personnel must be ready for such an incident by preplanning the pipeline route; knowing how to size up the problem once an incident has occurred; and having the knowledge to handle the incident correctly.

Safety throughout the operations must be kept in the minds of all personnel. Because the incident is outside, fire fighters tend to get lax and officers must ensure that all necessary precautions are taken.

If evacuation is necessary, it must be carried out with speed. Cooperation from other agencies is a necessity. A specific plan must be developed.

Hopefully, you will have have a pipeline incident in your community. But, if you should, I hope you have done everything possible to minimize injuries and reduce damage.

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