Eighteen years ago, a gas pipeline explosion in Edison, New Jersey injured 29 people and destroyed eight apartment buildings; ever since then, safety proponents have lobbied natural gas companies to install automatic or remote shut-off valves on pipelines. In spite of a continued push for this critical safety measure, gas companies have resisted adopting the safety measure. As a result, gas pipeline explosions have continued to rock neighborhoods all across the country. The latest occurred on December 14, leveling four homes and melting an 800-foot section of Interstate 77 near Sissonville, West Virginia.
An investigation into the cause of the explosion is still ongoing; among the issues at the heart of that investigation is whether Columbia Gas responded quickly enough to the incident. Federal investigators said it took the local gas company over an hour to manually shut off the gas in the wake of the explosion. As crews struggled, the burning fire raged on, fueled by the continued flow of gas. Had the pipe been fitted with an automatic shut off valve, the flames could have been extinguished far quicker.
Instead of requiring on-scene responders to manually shut off the flow of gas, an automatic valve closes if a sensor detects changes in pressure or certain other troubling criteria. If an engineer sees concerning signs, a remote switch can be triggered as well, stopping the gas in its tracks.
Safety officials contend that automatic or remote valves shut gas off quickly, giving firefighters access to damaged areas much sooner. But industry officials are balking at installing the devices, complaining they're too expensive to install on the nation’s millions of miles of pipelines.
Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said, "Safety costs money, and it can either cost money up front, or it can cost innocent lives and untold tragedy to others who are in the proximity of these pipelines when they explode. The price is set. It's just do we pay it up front now or pay it later?"