Last Tuesday, a natural gas pipeline owned by Canadian energy giant Enbridge exploded in Rusk County, Texas. Conner Wilson, 32, of Longview, an employee of Thunderhorse Oilfield Services, was killed in the explosion, leaving behind a wife and four children. The rupture that led to the explosion was reported caused when a mulching machine, apparently operated by Wilson, struck the pipeline.
Pipeline explosions are unfortunately not uncommon. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, 281 “significant pipeline incidents” have occurred on average each year since 1994, resulting in an average of 18 deaths, 70 injuries, and $335 million in property damage each year. PHMSA defines a “significant pipeline incident” as an incident reported by a pipeline operator resulting in fatality or in-patient hospitalization, $50,000 or more in costs, 5 barrels or more of highly volatile liquid releases, or releases resulting in unintentional fire or explosion.
According to PHMSA, “excavation damage” is the most common category of cause for significant pipeline incidents, resulting in 21.7% of all significant reported incidents, followed closely by “materials, welding, or equipment failures” at 20.5%. Damage by “vehicles not engaged in excavation,” such as the incident which led to Mr. Wilson’s death, cause another 3% of pipeline incidents.
Many pipeline explosions are preventable through proper communication and research before excavating or working near a pipeline. To that end, PHMSA established One Call centers, which anyone can call by dialing “811” to learn the location of pipelines before starting any excavation project. “Most pipeline accidents are preventable with just one call to these centers,” announced PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman in a press briefing.
However, despite the availability of this simple and effective resources, serious and preventable pipeline incidents are still far too common and show little sign of decline.