KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Turn it. Stop a leak. Save lives and property.
The role of an emergency shutoff valve on a natural gas pipeline would seem pretty straightforward.
But shutoff valves, in the hands of pipeline operators and gas utilities, are often toothless bystanders in the prevention of deadly gas explosions. Regulations require their installation, but not their use in emergencies.
Experts say that pipeline safety is governed by a mishmash of state rules and weak federal oversight. The natural gas industry, they say, has a torturous history with regulators, often working to delay reforms.
In many areas, the number of shutoff valves on the gas lines serving individual homes and businesses has drastically declined in recent decades. It’s only recently that regulators succeeded in making utilities put updated valves on those lines, and then only on new ones.
Utility and gas industry representatives counter that they take safety seriously and that utility crews can plug leaks effectively — without using shutoff valves.
But Jim Hall, former chairman of the federal National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates natural gas disasters, said shutoff valves are “as important as brakes on a car. …
”I’ve been waiting patiently for two decades for the industry to embrace safety.“
The reluctance to use shutoff valves isn’t unusual, safety experts say. When closed, they deny gas service not to just the homes or businesses nearby, but to potentially hundreds of customers. Service then has to be restored by utility employees going around and relighting pilot lights.
”It takes time and money, and they’re reluctant to use them, especially when there is cold weather,“ said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., a Redmond, Wash., pipeline safety firm.
In recent gas-leak blasts, shutoff valves weren’t used.
Instead of shutting the valves when the smell of gas was in the air before the February blast that leveled JJ’s restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri Gas Energy waited for a backhoe to arrive from Raymore — more than 20 miles away — in a failed attempt to vent the leak. A waitress was killed and several people were injured.
Last year, Kansas Gas Service took hours to stop a leak in Topeka instead of using a shutoff valve. In the follow-up investigation, state regulators wondered why the shutoff valves weren’t closed.
Regulators and industry watchdogs have the same concerns about deadly gas-leak incidents from California to Pennsylvania.
Missouri Gas Energy and Kansas Gas Service declined to comment for this article.
The industry has previously pointed out that pipeline safety has improved and that serious incidents and fatalities are down from a decade ago. In a safety statement posted on its website, American Gas Association, a trade group, said the highest priority is placed on safety.
Shutoff valves are sprinkled along every part of the country’s natural gas pipeline network.
They stud the huge, high-pressure interstate transmission pipelines that carry gas from wells to cities. They’re spaced along the distribution lines that run down streets and feed the individual service lines for your home or business.
They’re at the gas meters that regulate the flow of gas to furnaces and water heaters.
In addition to the reluctance from utilities to use them and the reduced number of curb valves, a review of the use of shutoff valves by The Kansas City Star found other issues:
• While utilities are required to have easily accessible shutoff valves on their main distribution lines, loosely worded regulations govern the spacing of the valves, and that determination is often left up to utilities. That allows them to be spaced too far apart to quickly stop the flow of gas in a leak.
• Interstate transmission pipelines that crisscross the country — there’s one running right beneath the Kansas City area — rely on manually operated shutoff valves that have to be cranked shut by hand. Remote or automatic valves on the high-pressure pipelines work faster, but many in the pipeline industry have resisted installing them.
In 2010 in San Bruno, Calif., a big transmission pipe burst, and utility workers struggled for an hour and a half to shut down the pipe with a manual valve. A huge explosion killed eight people, a grim example of the dangers, especially in populated areas.
Some pipeline operators, including the company involved in the San Bruno blast, have dropped their opposition to remote or automatic valves. But the industry in general still questions their usefulness.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, regulates most of the transmission lines draining the country’s natural gas fields. It also sets minimum safety standards for pipelines operated by utilities.
But the utility pipelines are directly overseen by state regulators, who could toughen the federal standards.
The federal standards require that utilities be ”prompt and effective“ when responding to gas leaks, and utilities get plenty of practice.
Valves are optional
Shutoff valves have a place in the emergency plans crafted by each pipeline operator, but utilities like Kansas Gas Service call them an option. Other methods are often preferred, including venting the leak so it won’t become combustible. Or digging holes to crimp both ends of a pipe to stop the flow of gas to the leak.
In most cases, those methods work well. But disasters like JJ’s beg the question about why shutoff valves on distribution lines aren’t used more often.