Anytime you drive across Nebraska chances are you unknowingly cross some of the 20,570 miles of underground pipeline carrying natural gas or other hazardous materials. During all the debate over whether to route an oil pipeline through Nebraska, people might not have realized they already live with this hidden infrastructure every day.
Only occasionally do serious safety issues arise, but when they do the results have been spectacular and sometimes deadly.
The Nebraska State Fire Marshal's office has the responsibility to keep on eye on the part of the network that does not cross into neighboring states. That's primarily the natural gas transportation and distribution system that makes up about half the underground pipelines with Nebraska's borders.
Inspectors from the Fire Marshal's office check the physical condition of the pipes and the paperwork that tracks what equipment has been installed and how it's being monitored and repaired.
(National Transportation Safety Board)
One of the worst pipeline explosions in American history occurred in San Bruno, Calif. This video summarizes the federal investigation into what went wrong.
Photos by Bill Kelly/NET News
Follow pipeline inspector Arnie Barnes on his rounds during his visit to the City of Hastings gas utility.
Recently NET News tagged along with pipeline inspector Arnie Bates during part of his a three-day review of the natural gas distribution system maintained by the Hastings Utility Department.
"We're going out to physically look at the equipment," Barnes said enroute to the first stop. He wanted to check out "what is there, what is supposed to be there, (and) how it looks."
He said he was looking for specific signs that indicate hazards to the public, which sometimes are the most basic maintenance and safety items, but not getting the easy stuff right can be a sign, according to Bates.
"If they can't do this right, then there are other issues."
Bates came to the Fire Marshal's office with a background in both the pipeline industry and as a volunteer firefighter. Sporting a thin black tie, a crisp white shirt and a shiny gold badge, he climbed out of the van and circled an outcropping of pipes on the city's north side. This is the point where the natural gas leaves the pipes owned by the transporter, Kinder-Morgan, and passes into the pipes of the buyer, the Hastings Utility.
Gesturing to the cluster of enclosed white pipes, Bates says "Anything inside the fence is not my jurisdiction." The state only has responsibility for pipelines that do no cross the border into other states. Sometimes the lines are owned by private companies and sometimes by local utility. That's the case with the pipes carrying gas to homes and businesses in Hastings. The job of inspecting the interstate pipes that cross borders falls to the federal government through the U.S. Department of Transportation. The safety regulations are nearly identical.
Stations where the pressure of the gas is reduced using regulators is one of the likeliest places inspectors can spot potential problems. Bates circled the tangle of shiny green pipes before something caught his eye.
"If you take a look at that pipe over there, you'll notice that the covering is pulling away, he says while pulling out a pocket knife, and digging behind the loose fabric and tar wrapping. A ring of light rust appears where the pipe is passing back into the gravel and soil.
Bates said it was a fairly minor issue. The loose wrappings at ground level allowed moisture to collect and rust to form.
"That'll be addressed to the operator on exit that one of the things they need to do is take a closer look at the pipe to soil interfaces, and fix that one.
The manager of the Utility's gas department, Ed Fleharty, was standing just a few feet away watching and assured Bates it would be dealt with before the next inspection.
During the inspection Fleharty was patient and good humored with the process, even when the inspector seems to hone in on minor issues.
"I think they generally try to help us be in compliance," Fleharty said during the tour. "You know and sometimes the rules are vague, and he says this is the way we'd like to see it, and OK, we can do that, it's not a problem.
According to Clark Conklin, the man who supervises the inspectors, "public safety is paramount."
Conklin, the head of the Fuels Division in the State Fire Marshall's office told NET News, inspectors "represent the State of Nebraska." When the are hired Conklin says he tells them "the entire state of Nebraska is behind a new inspector and they should be confident in making sure the regulations are followed."
There's a lot of pipe to watch over. A web of more than 12,000 miles sprawl across the entire state. There are 100 miles maintained by the Hastings Utility alone. "We all tend to take it for granted and then soon at some point and time forget it's there," said Clark Conklin, head of the Fuels Division in the State Fire Marshal's office. Nebraska's tragic history with pipeline safety gave the Hastings Utility first-hand knowledge of what can happen when a decaying pipeline system goes bad. In 1979 an explosion created a hole where a three story downtown business once stood. An aging pipe leaked gas into the Ben Sherman clothing store. It's likely the only reason no one died was because the gas ignited early in the morning.
"In that case there was older material that was deteriorating that we thought was okay but it failed overnight," explained Arnie Bates. "When it failed it lead to a catastrophic result."
That blast came on the heels of one of the worst disasters in Nebraska's history. Three years earlier faulty underground plastic pipe in downtown Fremont filled the six story Hotel Pathfinder with natural gas. The explosion and fire killed 20 people.
There were few, if any meaningful rules for safely installing, repairing and inspecting the state's hazardous material pipelines before those blasts. Now hundreds of pages of regulations, framed by nationally set standards, provide the rulebook for state inspectors hoping to keep the system safe.
In addition to the field inspections, Arnie Bates spent hours reviewing maps and stacks of loose leaf binders used to record changes made to every valve and every pressure regulator on the City of Hastings distribution system.
"It's another set of eyes looking at the process, making sure that safety piece of equipment is going to operate the way it's supposed to," said Bates. For the people in charge of the pipelines the inspections seemed to have the same uncomfortable feeling as having your homework graded.
"I'm not putting Arnie on the spot," Fleharty said with a chuckle, "but sometimes we'll sit there for a long time going through records and it's like when is he going to find something wrong so we can move onto something else!"
As it turns out, this year's inspection didn't find much wrong, Bates told us. "From my knowledge of the system, it's looking really good."
The the State Fire Marshall's office has some significant concerns about the state's gas pipeline system. In Omaha and other Nebraska towns with long histories there are stretches of old-fashioned, aging cast iron pipeline underground. These are prone to rust and failure. Most gas suppliers have replacement plans, according to Conklin.
"Everyone is cognizant of the concerns with old cast iron piping," said Conklin, "but unfortunately it's in some of the most expensive places to fix. It's downtown urban areas."
The human factor is always the biggest issue. People make mistakes as well. This past year an explosion at the gas plant run by the town of Superior may have been the result of maintenance and training issues. The case is still under review.