Pipeline Damages

Lack of Oversight and Lack of Adequate Regulation Allows Pipeline Operators to Escape Penalties in Parachute Colorado

Based on information provided by Bargath (owned by Williams company), the release of natural gas liquids occurred due to the failure of a pressure gauge attached to a four- (4) inch pipeline that is used to transport natural gas liquids from the gas plant to storage tanks, prior to sale as a product. The release occurred due to the fracture of a small diameter (about the size of your pinky finger) behind the face/dial of a gauge that was about four inches in diameter. There are no regular maintenance requirements for the inside of a gauge so the failure of the gauge was not the result of poor maintenance or negligence. After determining that the source of the leak, Bargath immediately replaced all gauges of that same model on their pipelines.

The leak in the pressure gauge was discovered just after midnight on January 3, 2013 by maintenance workers responding to reset a valve that had closed automatically due to the cold weather. The maintenance workers noticed the leak coming from the pressure gauge and closed the valve that turned off flow to the gauge, which stopped the leak. The maintenance workers believed that the broken gauge had occurred due to a pressure spike that happened when the automatic valve closed. The maintenance workers shoveled up all of the snow and unfrozen soil that appeared to be impacted by the release and restarted the pipeline.  The maintenance workers shoveled up all of the snow and unfrozen soil that appeared to be impacted by the release and restarted the pipeline.

As noted above, the natural gas liquids leak occurred through a very small diameter pipe at a rate of less than three (3) gallons per minute. The pressure drop and volume reduction caused by the release was not a large enough magnitude to trigger alarms in the automatic sensors that monitor each pipeline at the plant. It was not until after the actual significance of the release was realized, and further investigation of product inventories in March that Bargath realized the failure in the pressure gauge had actually begun on December 20, 2012 and was stopped on January 3, 2013. Again, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (state health department) has no reason to believe that the initial lack of release discovery was due to negligence on the part of Bargath. [Editorial note:  In July, 2013, the amount of Benzene detected in water levels had doubled--six months after the initial leas was discovered, and long after the leak was reportedly stopped.  Could there still be leaks occuring elsewhere in the system?]

The determination that Bargath was not negligent in the cause and non-discovery of the natural gas liquids leak is very important because the state health department does not have any authority to regulate the natural gas liquids in the pipeline (because they are product) or the pipeline itself. The state health department’s authority only begins once the natural gas liquids have reached the ground as a result of a spill, because once a product hits the soil and groundwater it becomes classified as a waste. Disposal of waste without a permit is a violation of Colorado’s solid waste laws, and in this case, also the hazardous waste laws. If the state health department had determined that Bargath intentionally released (disposed) of natural gas liquids, or that significant negligence on Bargath’s part had resulted in the release (disposal), then the state health department would have sought to assign significant fines to Bargath. However, in this case, the natural gas liquids released had a significant value to Bargath that was lost as a result of the release. There would never be a reason for Bargath to intentionally release natural gas liquids – their product – or ignore a known leak.

[Editorial note:  It appears the reason the company was not deemed negligent was because of the lack of adequate regulatory standards for inspection and maintenance of this type of system.]

Considering the present information, the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division of the state health department (the division) itself does not plan to assess Bargath any penalties for the leak. If subsequent information changes, penalties would be reconsidered. Fines could be levied if Bargath does not follow the division’s orders requiring the company to clean up the environment. The division’s decision not to assess penalties under its enforcement authority does not prevent the Water Quality Control Division or the Air Pollution Control Division from independently from imposing penalties. The possibility of fining the company is still under consideration.

During this pipeline leak, the lighter part of the natural gas liquids (ethane, propane, butane, and isobutane) evaporated, leaving the heavier part (natural gasoline) to reach the ground and sink beneath the soil surface. Natural gasoline includes the chemical compounds benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (typically referred to as “BTEX constituents”). While all of the BTEX constituents have been detected in groundwater at the site, the focus has been on benzene, which is the most mobile constituent and poses the greatest hazard because it has the lowest standards.

Historically, what damages are caused by NATURAL GAS LIQUIDS pipeline incidents?

            In just the last 10 years there have been 5,612 pipeline incidents in the United States that have caused injury, property damage, or unintended release of hazardous product.[1]  As a result of these incidents, 2,417,408 gross barrels of hazardous liquids have spilled.  The resulting property damage has totaled more than 6 billion dollars.[2]

            The following chart contains incident data collected in Pennsylvania over the last 10 years.  The data shows that although hazardous liquids pipelines are only 4.6% of the total pipeline miles in Pennsylvania, from 2002 to 2012, these pipelines represent 24.8% of "significant incidents, and 61.5% of the property damage.

            The data also shows to expect 1 significant incident for every 102 miles of liquids pipeline every ten years at an average cost of just over $1.45 million per incident.
Pennsylvania significant incidents 2002 - November 2012

Type of pipeline
Pipeline miles
Significant Incidents
Property Damage
Gas distribution lines
Gas transmission lines
$ 9,137,713
Gas gathering lines

Hazardous liquids
$ 39,188,843

$ 63,688,060

Significant incidents are those where there is death, an injury requiring hospitalization, property damage of $50,000 or more, liquid releases where there is an unintentional fire or explosion, or a liquid release of > 5 barrels of highly volatile liquid, or > 50 barrels of other liquids.

[1]  See US Dept. of Transportation:  Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration  http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/safety/SigPSI.html?nocache=3157#_all
[2] Id.