W.Va. Lacks Oversight of Pipelines

WHEELING – West Virginia regulators do not inspect the vast majority of pipelines transporting natural gas and oil throughout the state, such as the two Williams Energy conduits that ruptured in Marshall County earlier this month, spilling oil and condensate into streams.

“We don’t have the opportunity to increase oversight over anything that we regulate. We regulate what the state and federal government require of us,” said Susan Small, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Public Service Commission, which is responsible for pipelines that do not cross state boundaries. “We have five inspectors for the whole state.”

Officials with both Williams Energy and the state Department of Environmental Protection continue evaluating the effects of the April 9 breaks, one of which caused 132 barrels of natural gas condensate – a substance similar to crude oil – to spill into Little Grave Creek. DEP spokeswoman Kelley J. Gillenwater said the agency will cite Williams for “conditions not allowable in state waters,” adding that other violations discovered in the investigation could result in additional penalties.

Williams Energy did not construct the two pipelines in question, but acquired them through purchasing another company. The company does have responsibility for the breaks.

“Williams purchased the two lines, but takes full responsibility for their safe operation,” Williams spokeswoman Helen Humphreys said of the 4-inch and 12-inch lines.

She said the company is fixing the leak in the 4-inch line, hoping to complete the repairs by May 8.

Gillenwater said her department is only involved in the matter because the condensate spilled into a stream. She said the DEP has worked to increase oversight by requiring builders of new pipelines to obtain stormwater construction permits from the state Division of Water and Waste Management.

“This new permit requirement was put in place by the agency in June 2013 to better protect West Virginia streams from soil runoff and other issues that can occur when sediment controls aren’t properly implemented,” Gillenwater said.

“The agency has no jurisdiction, however, to regulate the pipelines themselves – meaning the DEP can’t require integrity testing of the lines,” she added.

Small said the vast majority of pipelines in West Virginia fall into what’s known as Class 1 pipelines, which means there are 10 or fewer occupied buildings within 220 yards on any side of the pipeline. This describes rural areas, home to nearly all pipelines.

“If it is a Class 1 location, we don’t have any say over it,” she said.

Small emphasized this is the case for “gathering” pipelines, which generally connect natural gas wells to compressor stations and processing plants. Upon leaving the plant, the gas often enters a larger “transmission” pipeline,” over which state regulators have authority to enforce federal regulations.

“We don’t walk the line. We would inspect the company’s records to make sure they adhere to federal regulations,” she said of those rules established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For interstate pipelines – such as the the ATEX Express ethane pipeline that caused a huge fireball when it ruptured in Brooke County January 26 – PHMSA inspects problems with the line. The National Transportation Safety Board serves to oversee PHMSA’s findings.

Tim Greene, owner of Land and Mineral Management of Appalachia and a former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection oil and gas inspector, has said previously the problem with oversight is a real one.

“It is not like inspectors are out there tagging these lines. Companies are just building them,” Greene said. “… I seriously doubt that 10 years from now, anyone with the state will know where these pipelines are.”