October 22, 2018

In Wake of Merrimack Valley Explosions, Senators Warren, Markey Demand Answers from PHMSA on Safety Gaps in Federal Natural Gas Pipeline Regulations

Following updates from federal accident investigators, Senators call for more oversight to prevent repeat disasters

Text of the Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - After additional briefings from the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) on the causes of the September 13 Merrimack Valley gas pipeline explosions, Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey today asked the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) whether existing regulations are sufficient to prevent repeat disasters.

 The Columbia Gas disaster in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts was caused when two pressure-sensing lines both failed after the pipe they were on was taken out of service – a failure of redundancy known as a “common mode failure.” Since the Columbia Gas Control Room in Ohio had no way to turn off the flow of gas without going to each individual valve that fed gas into the system, gas continued to feed into the over-pressurized area for a significant period of time after the alarms were registered.

 In their letter, the Senators identify three area for strengthening regulations to ensure safer gas distribution systems: regulations to prevent a common mode of failure, regulations to ensure qualified personnel for construction, and regulations requiring remote shut-off.

 “These issues call into question whether existing regulations are sufficient to protect the public from future disasters or if additional oversight is needed to prevent this from happening again in Massachusetts or anywhere else,” write the Senators in their letter to PHMSA Administrator Howard “Skip” Elliott. “Given the circumstances of this disaster, that lack of regulation appears to be a serious safety failing in PHMSA regulations,”

In their letter, the Senators ask PHMSA to justify the existing level of regulations governing pressure-regulating devices, construction worker qualifications, and remote shut-off valves, as well as request response to question that include:

  • If PHMSA believes that Columbia Gas’ configuration met the current federal requirements, does PHMSA believe that those requirements are sufficient to ensure redundancy on the system to prevent a disaster as we saw in the Merrimack Valley?
  • Does PHMSA believe that promulgating regulations to govern the qualifications of workers engaged in pipeline construction would improve safety?
  • Does PHMSA believe that safety would improve if your agency reviewed and approved work packages for construction, operation, or maintenance of natural gas distribution pipelines?
  • Does PHMSA believe that requiring remote shut-off capabilities for natural gas distribution pipelines would improve safety?