The advanced age of America’s petroleum and hazardous materials pipeline network poses huge risks for crews who work on the pipelines, citizens who live near them and the environment that surrounds them, according to Fred Pritzker, a pipeline explosion lawyer. Pritzker, who has represented clients injured in explosions, says improved maintenance requirements and better safety measures could prevent some of the injuries and fatalities that occur each year.
Over the last 30 years, pipeline accidents have killed more than 500 people and injured more than 4,000. On Monday, those statistics were grimly increased when five members of a contract crew working on a Colonial pipeline in Shelby County, AL were severely injured in an explosion and one of them died. Four of the injured crew members are being treated for severe burn injuries at UAB Hospital’s trauma and burn unit.
It will be some time before investigators determine what ignited the fuel after an excavator struck the line because they can’t get close enough to the site. Three days after the explosion, the fire is still burning.
The accident is related the massive Colonial pipeline gas leak that was discovered about a mile from the explosion site in September. The nine-man contract crew was preparing the area for a new section of the pipeline when the explosion occurred.
It is unclear what caused the rupture that led to the leak that spilled more than 252,000 gallons of gas before it was discovered by a mining inspector employed by a different company on September 9. Colonial said it monitors the pipeline, which was built in the 1960s, with weekly flyovers and the integrity if that section of pipe was last tested in 2014.
The spill is one of 128 such incidents the company has reported to the federal government since 2010, according to a recent report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A six-year average of 21 spills each year earned Colonial sixth place on the most spills list in the paper’s analysis of 208 pipeline companies from 2010 to 2016.
The map above, from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), shows the 2.6 million miles of pipelines that move natural gas and liquid petroleum products around the country each year. More than 60 percent of them were built before 1970. And some are near or have passed the 100-year mark, 3.6 percent of crude oil pipelines were built before 1920.
So far this year, there have been 80 significant spills. In 2015, there were 132.
Age isn’t the only threat pipelines face. Forces of nature such as hurricanes and falling trees and the more routine, but still brutalizing, freezing and thawing cycles of the seasons take their toll.
On Wednesday, members of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, issued a statement calling for “a systematic review of the pipeline’s integrity” and the public release of Colonial’s maintenance and system upgrade plan. Pritzker, who recently won a $10 million settlement for a client who was badly burned in an explosion, says those are good first steps.
To reach Fred Pritzker and the team of lawyers at Pritzker Hageman with a successful track record representing people injured in explosions, click here. Or, call toll-free 1 (888) 377-8900. The consultation is free and there is no obligation.