PHMSA Worries About Pipeline Safety, Senate Bill Worries Pipeline Industry

By Stephen Barlas, Washington Editor | May 2009 Vol. 64 No. 5

Six months after giving pipelines the green light to use high stress pipelines more widely, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is now highlighting safety concerns with new pipelines operating at 80 percent of specified minimum yield strength (SMYS).

The concerns are the results of intensified inspections over the past year and a half. Prior to last November, pipelines could build lines at 80 percent if they were granted special permits granted by PHMSA. After the agency published a final rule last November, any pipeline could operate at 80 percent in a class 1 location – up from 72 percent of SMYS – without a special permit.

Pipelines pressed to get out from under the special permit requirement because of the huge construction boom in the industry and the need to move more gas more quickly, and ostensibly more cheaply too. Operating at 80 percent allows pipelines to do just that; but the thinner pipe used raises the risk that problems with coating, welding or steel could have bigger repercussions than they would at 72 percent of SMYS or lower.

Alan Mayberry, director, engineering and emergency support at PHMSA, says inspectors had turned up new pipe that had just been buried, after being inspected by the company, whose coating was problematic. There have been problems with welds, too. Mayberry declines to quantify the problems. No enforcement actions have been taken yet. But he explains that “some cases are pending.”

That is the backdrop to the public meeting PHMSA held on April 23 in Fort Worth, TX. Without providing any inspection data prior to the meeting, the agency said the get together was necessary because it had “identified issues regarding procedures and inspection of pipeline coating, welding and general pipeline construction practices. Many of the issues required immediate response from operators to avoid impacting long term pipeline integrity before the pipeline was put into service.”

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) had already been aware of PHMSA’s concern. It held a “Safety Culture” workshop in Houston on March 23 and a Quality Assurance Quality Control Workshop two days later where a number of the construction issues of concern to PHMSA were laid out. Steve Nanney, project manager, engineering and emergency response at PHMSA, showed slides of scarred, gouged and mis-welded pipe as examples of the problems PHMSA is finding.