10 Investigates Finds Continuing Problems, Risks Of Aging Gasline Explosions

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Tennessee Gas Pipeline’s parent company says safety is its first priority.

Even so, 10 Investigates found a pattern of problems, such as a fire breathing menace sleeping just under the soil of a quiet patch of Columbiana County farmland.

On February 10 2011, it thundered to life.

“It was just a roar,” said Richard Zehentbauer.

The 36 inch Tennessee mainline blew and belched flames hundreds of feet into the air. It warped steel, charred trees and took aim at Zehentbauer's home.

“Like the corner posts, those were vinyl. It melted those,” he said.

Zehentbauer was a few miles from home when the line erupted, but his kids and wife were home. He was talking to her on the phone as it happened.

Zehentbauer saw the blast and the phone went dead.

“It was scary. It was really scary,” he recalled.

Zehentbauer’s family made it out alive, but he lost a cow and sustained serious property damage. The pipe blasted through several feet of concrete casing and left a pair of craters in the road.

Company officials in Texas ordered an investigation, and a report pinpointed the cause. It was a crack where two pieces of pipe come together which is called a girth weld.

The report also noted that the pipe was constructed in 1963, and at that time, according to the report, inspections "were not required."

10 Investigates has learned the Columbiana line is not the only Tennessee Gas line to have problems.  WBNS-10TV has uncovered three incidents in Ohio last year alone, and serious problems in other parts of the country around the same time.

10 Investigates searched volumes and volumes of technical reports and government action orders. WBNS-10TV found that in November 2010, a 30 inch Tennessee pipe ruptured in Natchitoches, Louisiana.  Just a couple of months after that, the explosion on Zehentbauer's farm rocked Columbiana County.

Within three weeks, another stretch of that very same line ruptured in Guernsey County.

Then, in November, the same line caused that huge explosion near Glouster.

Just five days later, there was another explosion of a Tennessee Gas line in Batesville, Mississippi blew.

“That concerns me,” said Cathy Sayer.

Sayer and her husband John lost their farm when the line blew near Glouster.

“We were fortunate no one got killed out here. There are sitting ducks out there just waiting for this to happen,” she said.

Her concern is based on federal reports obtained by 10 Investigates.

The documents show a pipeline with pieces constructed in the 1940s. In Ohio, the line was built in the 50s and 60s. In all three Ohio cases last year, problems developed along the "girth welds." 

Those welds were made when inspections were "not required."

A report written for the company about the Glouster explosion said that the contributing factors for this failure are best described by the conditions relative to the girth weld procedures and practices in place at the time of construction.

These conditions resulted in the formation of a crack that was produced at the time of construction. The report also said that without the girth weld crack, “the landslide likely could have resulted in a pipeline failure at a later time”

10 Investigates asked the pipeline company to comment about the findings on camera. WBNS-10TV even went to the company's headquarters in Houston, Texas, but, the company declined our invitation.

A spokesman from the company sent a statement.

It said in part, "each incident involves different root cause factors. (Tennessee Gas Pipeline) is committed to determining and implementing appropriate mitigation measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring....we have had no failures on our system where age has been identified as a cause."

Texas-based pipeline expert Don Deaver is one of the few willing to openly criticize the industry and sometimes gets paid as an expert in trials against pipeline companies.

Regardless of what other factors might have contributed to the pipeline failures, Deaver said the pattern of failed girth welds 10 Investigates has uncovered reveals a serious issue.

“This is definitely a pattern that has to be addressed. This is not just something random and is unpredictable.  It's a pattern existing with these pipelines,” said Deaver. “You've got three type of girth weld failures in kind of a region, there’s got to be a reason for concern.”

Deaver said each as the pipes continue to age, the threat gets worse.

“There is a risk, no doubt. There's a risk to public safety out there. And it's going to get worse before it gets better, unless corrective action is taken.”

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After The Inferno