Federal agency finds defects in pipeline that exploded in 2019

Congress has created many agencies that are responsible for monitoring safety in large public utilities, including power lines, railroads and pipelines. The operators of these utilities often argue that government regulation is unnecessary because they can police themselves and are capable of finding, reporting and correcting safety problems. Unfortunately, many of these statements are patently self-serving and often turn out to be tragically incorrect.

A report and order issued by a federal agency charged with investigating pipeline failures recently accused Enbridge, Inc. with failing to find and report flaws in a large pipeline that runs through Kentucky. The report was issued of April 28, 2020 by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The pipeline is operated by Texas Eastern Transmission LP, a subsidiary of Enbridge. The pipeline exploded last August near Danbury. The explosion threw a 30-foot long section of the heavy pipe 481 feet. The explosion ignited a fire that destroyed five homes and damaged more than a dozen others. One woman was killed, and six others were hospitalized.

Texas Eastern inspected the line in 2018 – before the explosion occurred – and found only a “small dent with mental loss.” Although this defect could lead to an explosion, the company was not required to report the finding because it was not located in an area that the company had designated “high consequence,” an area where a pipeline failure could have “greater consequences to health and safety or the environment.”

The report that was recently issued by the PHMSA found several faults in the pipeline and concluded that continuous operation of the pipeline without additional corrective measures “would result in the likelihood of serious harm to life, property or the environment.” The order requires Enbridge to take several remedial actions, including surveying the entire length of the pipeline to find and repair leaks. No cause for the accident has been determined, but the National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate the accident.

The story of this pipeline disaster is not unlike other catastrophic accidents on public utilities that the owners had vowed to find and prevent. Enbridge made several so-called “inspections” of the pipeline but supposedly found no defects. When the PHMSA reviewed data provided by Enbridge, it found 12 potential failure spots that could cause other failures. For its part, Enbridge said that it would not comment on the accident while the NTSP continues its investigation.

One of the best ways to ensure that pipeline operators fulfill their duties to the public is energetically pursuing suits for damages on behalf of persons injured or killed in an accident. The fear of facing potential damage awards running into several millions of dollars is usually enough to compel utility owners to take seriously their duty of keeping their facilities safe.

Anyone who feels they may have a claim for damages resulting from the failure of an energy company to inspect and maintain its equipment may wish to consult a competent local attorney for an evaluation of the evidence in the case and an estimate of the likelihood of recovering damages for medical expenses, lost income, and pain and suffering.