Pipeline Inspected Day Before Fatal Blast

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 @ 03:03 PM gHale

It is possible a leak in a natural gas pipeline formed after an inspection occurred one day before an explosion that killed five people in Allentown, PA, last month.

At a hearing on pipeline safety in King of Prussia, outside Philadelphia, UGI Chief Executive John Walsh told a panel of congressional members the investigation into the Feb. 9 explosion will take six to eight more weeks before a final determination on the circumstances surrounding the blast.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who leads the House subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous material, held the hearing in the wake of the Allentown explosion, which killed a 4-month-old boy, an elderly couple and two others, as well as a January blast that killed a Philadelphia Gas Works employee.

The emerging natural gas industry in the Marcellus Shale formation in parts of Pennsylvania will only be making pipeline safety an even bigger issue in coming years, officials said at the hearing.

U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., said he was concerned about how closely officials were surveying for leaks in pipelines, considering that inspectors had conducted a survey of the Allentown pipeline the day before the explosion.

“How could they have missed the leak the day before?” Meehan asked.

“It is possible that the catastrophic leak could have developed after that survey was done,” Walsh responded, adding that the utility was still investigating whether that was the case. He also said the utility was placing a priority on replacing as many lengths of cast-iron pipeline as possible.

Investigators have said they suspect a piece of cracked pipe may be to blame for the explosion and fire, which burned for hours as crews worked to cut off the gas supply. Officials have also said the blast was not far from the site of a similar explosion in 1990.

Last month’s explosion flattened a pair of row houses and set fire to a block of homes in an area where the underground gas main lacked shut-off valves.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski said aging gas mains need replacement and automatic shut-off valves could have saved lives. “The story of our aging infrastructure is not new,” he said.

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