Michigan’s aging gas pipelines raise safety concerns

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Orion Township — A gas explosion that lit up the sky over Oakland County last month comes after 21 other incidents involving Consumers Energy pipelines in Michigan over the past decade, federal records show.

The incidents caused property damage totaling more than $10 million, according to data the utility reported to to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

None of the incidents resulted in injuries or deaths, but environmental advocates say Michigan’s aging network of gas pipelines carries a heightened risk of corrosion or other material failure that could lead to a catastrophic fire or explosion.

Utilities in Michigan are still “20 years away from replacing pipes” that may leak, rupture and explode, said James Clift, policy director for the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, an umbrella organization for 70 environmental groups across the state.

“You have pipes 65, 75 years or older that must be replaced,” Clift said. “We have seen an uptick in corrosion being listed at fault.”

The Nov. 20 explosion off Brown Road, north of Interstate 75, shot a fireball several hundred feet in the air for two hours and left a 20-foot-deep crater along the pipeline.

There were no injuries or major property damage from the blast, which occurred in a remote area.

The 22-inch diameter pipeline involved in the blast is 65 years old, and Consumers Energy is awaiting the results of tests to determine what caused it to fail. Utility officials said last month a sudden loss of pressure was recorded in the line shortly before it exploded.

“A section of the pipe has been removed and sent off for metallurgical testing,” said Debra Dodd, a Consumers Energy spokeswoman. “It is still under investigation and (we) expect it will still be a few weeks before we can report the cause.”

Revisiting Orion blast

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett said he met for two hours Monday with Consumers Energy officials to discuss the pipeline blast.

“They say early testing doesn’t show stress fractures and they are ruling out corrosion, although they said it’s possible some environmental aspect may have caused it — which is pretty strange, because there is nothing there to impact it,” Barnett said.

Barnett said utility officials indicated they have no plans to replace the line, which Dodd confirmed.

“We will obviously replace the affected section of the pipeline, but we do plan to place this line back into service once construction is complete,” she said. “We have no plans to decommission this line.”

Dodd said Consumers’ parent firm, CMS Energy, is investing $378 million this year to test pipeline integrity, replace old sections and expand its network of gas lines in Michigan.

Michigan’s largest gas company routinely files “reportable incidents” to the federal government, she said.

Dodd said reports are required whenever there is a release of gas that results in: a death or injury necessitating hospitalization, estimated property damage of $50,000 or more, or the unintentional estimated loss of at least 3 million cubic feet of gas.

Tracking incidents

Consumers Energy, which serves 1.8 million homes and businesses, has 2,500 miles of large gas transmission pipes and 28,000 miles of smaller lines in Michigan — the most in the state.

“In any given year, they will experience incidents, including leaks, vehicle damage, excavation damage or other types of failures throughout their system,” said Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities.

Consumers’ closest competitor in Michigan, DTE Gas, has 2,000 miles of large gas transmission pipeline and 19,000 miles of smaller line.

Consumers Energy has had 200,000 reported gas leaks since November 2006, though only 21 were considered a “reportable incident,” according to Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham, Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit that monitors pipe problems nationally.

DTE had eight reportable incidents over the same period, with $872,124 in property damage. No one was injured.

A review by Weimer’s group of Consumers Energy incidents since 2016 suggests at least five of the reported gas pipeline failures in Michigan were caused by factors within the utility’s control, such as incorrect operation, corrosion and material and equipment failures.

A pipeline mishap in August 2017 at a Consumers Energy facility in Ira Township in St. Clair County caused about $434,000 in damage, though it was confined to the property, township fire Chief Jason Keller said. The federal agency listed the cause as “misc. operator/contractor excavation damage.”

Three others occurred in September 2016 in Livonia (excavation damage), Ira Township in St. Clair County (incorrect operation) and Manchester in Washtenaw Township (incorrect operation) and one in August 2016 in Armada in Macomb County (incorrect operation), federal records show.

The most serious Michigan gas explosion in the past decade occurred in May 2015 in Chelsea and caused more than $5.4 million in damage to Consumers’ property and $358,080 in product loss, according to federal records.

That Washtenaw County incident was attributed to equipment and weld failure due to environmental cracking.

“There was a large break in a 20-inch diameter gas line and it left a 50-foot deep crater,” said Chelsea fire Chief Robert Arbini.

Prior problems

Weimer said at 65 years old, the gas line involved in last month’s blast “is a fairly normal age for that type of pipeline.”

But last month’s incident wasn’t the first involving the Orion Township pipeline.

The same line had a problem in May 2005, when a rupture occurred at a valve at an above-ground station near Squirrel and Dutton roads, seven miles east of the November blast site.

“There are no pipeline safety regulations that require replacement or decommissioning at any certain age,” Weimer said. “Since the cause of the recent failure is not yet known, it is impossible to say whether there is any relation to the cause of the failure 12 years ago.”

Dodd said the 2005 incident involved newly installed parts, and the utility has confidence in that pipeline.

Assendelft said Consumers Energy conducted an internal investigation and made subsequent corrections after the 2005 incident.

Weimer and others said there is a push within the industry to implement a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to establish a safety management system that might prevent some failures.

That voluntary process was developed after two major incidents, one of them in Michigan.

A July 2010 rupture of a 30-inch Enbridge crude oil pipeline in Marshall leaked 800,000 gallons into the Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River.

A few weeks after that spill, a natural gas pipe exploded in a San Bruno, California, neighborhood, killing eight people, injuring dozens more and starting a fire that leveled 40 houses.

The American Petroleum Institute came up with Recommended Practice 1173, which is generally considered a standard for identifying and reducing risks through pipeline safety management systems.

Dodd said Consumers Energy hasn’t adopted the Recommended Practices measures but “has implemented systematic management practices as evidenced by our increasing investments in our natural gas system, which is the very intent of the Pipeline Safety Management System recommended practice.”

Weimer said pipeline operators have a duty to “continuously evaluate the risk of their pipelines and then maintain the pipeline in ways that mitigate that risk.”

“Older pipelines have heightened risks for time-dependent issues such as corrosion, and also because they were installed before better materials and technologies were in place for things such as the latest high-carbon steel pipe, epoxy coatings and high-tech inline inspections, etc.,” he said.

Clift said utilities across the country are trying to address aging pipes.

“The companies are focusing first on pipes located in more-populated areas, so it’s natural that less-populated areas are places to get the last attention and also where some of these problems happen,” he said.

“But we would like them to do whatever they need to take care of it as soon as possible for public safety reasons.”

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