on September 29th, 2010

Dear Colleagues

‘The explosive nature of a pipeline,is not far away from the force of a military explosion.’  So remarked Jim Hall, former (American) NTSB chairman. As recently as 2008, a natural gas explosion in Sacramento, killed one and injured two others. And in San Bruno, California on the Sept 2010, a high pressure natural gas line exploded killing seven people and injuring more than 50 others. As an aside, the San Bruno pipeline’s design was such that ‘smart pigs’ couldn’t be used to robotically trawl through the pipeline looking for corrosion and cracks. Over the past five years, over 60 people have been killed and 230 others injured with gas pipeline related ‘episodes’. And this is only in the USA.

Why read this any further ? Well; pipelines are a key part of our infrastructure  these days and impact on all of us as engineering professionals. And create opportunities for us in devising improved safety and delivery mechanisms using superior and more reliable engineering techniques.

The gas utilities report that half of the ‘incidents’ involve others such as builders, cable companies and other utilities who excavate and dig into underground gas pipes. However there are many other incidents relating to pipeline corrosion, operator errors and malfunctioning equipment which are presumably the responsibility of the gas utility. There are admittedly many improvements happening in improving safety. But obviously not enough. Esp. when you consider the above events are happening in one of the most highly developed engineering countries on the planet.

The vast majority of deaths and injuries occur along smaller distribution lines that go to homes and businesses and transmission lines in rural areas. And of course, older pipelines are also considerably higher risk.

Aging of these pipelines would be making this problem considerably worse. I also wonder what impact the so-called global financial crisis is making on pipeline maintenance ? And what is happening in pipelines in odd little third world countries where there is limited expertise (and money) ?

So my suggestions are to:

* Aggressively design, market and sell more devices to service this obvious need for testing gas pipeline integrity from the source of gas through to the final distribution pipelines
* Apply all the new technologies such as Geographical Information Systems and remote inspection technologies to pipelines
* Apply existing technology in other areas of engineering to gas pipelines.
* Research and investigate what is actually happening in gas pipelines throughout the world. Obviously, many disquietening things are happening that the public doesn’t know about.
* Run education and training programs to ensure personnel can easily detect pipeline integrity problems.
* Drive companies to improve maintenance and replacement of pipelines which are of suspect quality.

Surely, as engineering professionals we have moved well beyond relying on compliance agencies to enforce safety and can ignore Dudley Moore’s throw away line (with ‘car’ replaced by ‘pipeline’):

The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it.

Yours in engineering learning


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