ARUN RATH, HOST:
Let's turn now to a story a little closer to home. A natural gas pipeline explosion in rural Kentucky last week destroyed two homes and sent two people to the hospital. Federal investigators are examining the cause of the blast and still haven't explained exactly what went wrong.
But that explosion led NPR's Anna Boiko-Weyrauch to take a look through federal safety data. As she reports, there are dozens of pipeline accidents a year. And like in Kentucky, some segments go without government inspections for years.
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ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH, BYLINE: Around 1:00 a.m. February 13th, people in Adair County, Kentucky, woke up to a huge boom. 911 calls flooded in.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi there. County dispatch.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes. It looks like there was a terrible fire somewhere.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) in the forest...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It sounded like a helicopter landed, and I come to my front door...
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The flames were from an explosion on a natural gas pipeline. It left a crater 60 feet deep. Two people were injured. It wasn't the first time the pipeline had failed. NPR combed through federal data and found this pipeline had 26 incidents in the past 10 years. They ranged from costly leaks and broken equipment to an explosion on a corroded pipe from the 1950s that killed a man and injured another.
Two years ago, the same pipeline ruptured and caught fire in another part of rural Kentucky. Locals posted a video to YouTube...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: What is that?
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: ...showing a dark orange sky and a pulsing flame. Tom Stevens lived close enough that it broke his garage door. Do you feel safe living in that area?
TOM STEVENS: Well, I did. It's kind of questionable now. You never know when something may go off again.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Columbia Gulf Transmission operates the pipeline. It said shifting earth caused the 2012 accident but hasn't said what caused the one recently. The company denied requests for an interview but in written statements said it continually monitors the pipeline and exceeds federal safety requirements. There are over 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. NPR reviewed accident data and found they're generally safe. Still, on average, there are roughly 90 failures a year that the government considers significant.
So we looked at who oversees these pipelines. It's a government agency that you've probably never heard of, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which employs about 100 inspectors. Damon Hill's a spokesman for the agency.
DAMON HILL: We utilize our resources to the best of our abilities. We definitely make a significant attempt to look at all pipeline operators as often as possible.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: But a federal inspection doesn't usually mean inspecting the pipes. Typically, it's a paperwork audit in the company's office. Hill said operators are required to patrol their lines, scan them and test for weak spots. The rules for how they do it, though, leave a lot up to interpretation.
Carl Weimer heads the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, which advocates stronger oversight. He compared the federal rules to a highway speed limit sign.
CARL WEIMER: The way the pipeline safety regulations work is they don't often have a 55-mile-an-hour sign. What they would be more likely to have is a smiley face sign that says drive safe.
DON SANTA: Safety's important. It's part of our social license for doing business.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: That's Don Santa. He heads the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. He says companies are motivated to keep their system safe.
SANTA: It's also quite frankly not in the company's best interest for its shareholders to have pipelines with incidents or those that can't deliver natural gas.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: And he says companies would inspect their lines with or without regulations. As for Columbia Gulf Transmission, records show it inspected half of its pipeline system in 2012. The company says that's far above federal requirements.
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, NPR News.
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