Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Democrat who chairs the panel, said Monday he will convene the hearing Jan. 28 in Charleston. A list of witnesses for the hearing is still being developed, a spokesman said.
On Dec. 11, 2012, a 20-inch Columbia Gas Transmission line ruptured, triggering a massive fire and shutting down a major traffic artery near Sissonville, about 15 miles from Charleston.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the cause, has said the line showed signs of external corrosion and had thinned to about one-third of the recommended thickness in some spots. The Office of Pipeline Safety also said in a preliminary report that "general wall thinning is a major factor in the cause of the failure."
"The Sissonville explosion shook West Virginia quite literally," Rockefeller said, "and served as a stark reminder that pipeline safety is serious. And oversight is critically important."
Although there were no serious injuries in Sissonville, Rockefeller said things could have been worse.
"And West Virginians want to know everything is being done to prevent accidents — and disasters," he said.
The hearing will be the fourth the committee has held on pipeline safety while Rockefeller has chaired it.
Among other things, the Commerce Committee will review the implementation of the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011, he said. It will also review the findings of a Government Accountability Office study expected Jan. 23 on how well prepared pipeline operators are to handle a hazardous liquid or gas release.
Columbia Gas Transmission is a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource.
The company said Monday it can't predict when the damaged pipeline will be back in service. But NiSource is working with federal, state and local officials "to take every step necessary to ensure the safety of our pipeline system," it said in an e-mail.
The company that owns and operates the natural gas pipeline that exploded in has a lengthy record of pipeline safety violations and federal enforcement actions, including several recent incidents in West Virginia.
ccording to records obtained from the federal Pipeline and Hazard Materials Administration, the Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. (CGT Corp.), which owns and operates the pipeline that exploded in an enormous fireball near Sissonville, West Virginia, has been involved in 14 separate natural gas pipeline safety incidents since February 2011, including five in West Virginia.
Columbia is a wholly owned subsidiary of NiSource, one of America’s largest energy companies.
One of these incidents, on Aug. 25, 2012, in Elyria, Ohio, sent four people to the hospital with serious injuries. Together, the 14 incidents accounted for nearly $1.5 million in property damage.
According to the PHMSA records, nine of the 14 incidents were caused by equipment failure or corrosion, including the most recent incident, which occurred on Oct. 30 in Flat Top, West Virginia, which involved a malfunction of controls related to relief equipment.
In the I-77 blast, which sent flames shooting 100 feet into the air and melted a section of Interstate 77 and destroyed four nearby homes, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said, it took Columbia more than an hour to isolate the section of the pipeline where the explosion occurred and shut off the flow of gas to the pipeline.
During the same time period, PHMSA opened 11 separate enforcement actions involving alleged pipeline safety violations by Columbia. Five of those investigations are still underway. PHMSA is currently seeking more than $250,000 in civil penalties in connection with the investigations. The CGT Corp. paid a fine of $67,800 in connection with one investigation, in which the agency cited the company for failing to continuously monitor the concentration of gas in the air at the Claysville compressor station in Pennsylvania.
Damon Hill, a spokesperson for PHMSA, explained the difference in the number of incidents compared to the number of enforcement actions, saying that not every pipeline incident triggers an enforcement action.
“Every incident is investigated,” Hill told NaturalGasWatch.org, “but not every investigation results in an enforcement action.”