Mar 2 2011

Pipeline Fears Shut School

Texas School District Shuts Down Elementary School

After Risk-Analysis Study

Of “Aging” Pipeline Corridor Nearby

Study: “Pumphrey Elementary lies well within the blast threshold

radius of the Texas Eastern natural gas line”

Does School Board Fear Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Spectra Energy Will No Longer Respond to this Blog

Meanwhile, Spectra Energy Fights Controversial Pipeline Expansion

in NJ/NY; Promises “One of Safest Pipelines” in US

with Thicker Pipe & Remote Controlled Shut-off Valves

What About Texas School’s “Aging” Pipelines?

Exposed bypass valve near school.

Exposed bypass valve near school.

In the midst of news about explosions at natural gas pipelines and underground storage reservoirs, an amazing story seems to have slipped under the radar.
A school district in Texas, near Galveston Bay, shut down and abandoned an elementary school and a second building complex “situated between two aging pipeline corridors.”

The Goose Creek school district in Baytown, Texas, about 22 miles east of Houston, took the unusual action in 2009 following a risk-analysis study it commissioned.1

Last month, approximately 1.5 years after the school shutdown, a large “For Sale” sign appeared in front of the school.

The “aging pipeline corridor” is comprised of eight pipelines in the right of way:  six liquid petroleum lines, one liquefied propane gas line and one natural gas line, according to the risk-analysis study.  The natural gas pipeline is operated by Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern pipeline division.

It is the only pipeline identified by name in the risk-analysis document (pp. 11, 14 of print version).2

The report titled, Pipeline Risk Analysis – Right-of-Way Adjacent to Pumphrey Elementary School is dated January 22, 2009.3

It was prepared by Leslie E. Olson, Texas Transportation Institute, and Martin A. Wortman, Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Texas A&M University.

The report identifies ten “features having a significant bearing on the risk index” (p. 12 of print version).  The first three are (emphasis added):

  1. “At the nearest point, the 100 foot width right-of-way, hosting eight embedded pipelines, lies within 80 feet of the Pumphrey Elementary School instructional building complex.
  2. “The right-of-way is known to host a 30 inch natural gas pipeline operating at a maximum pressure of 1000 psig [pound-force per square inch gauge], and Pumphrey Elementary lies well within the blast threshold radius of the Texas Eastern natural gas line.
  3. “Five of the eight pipelines are known to have been constructed more [sic] 45 years ago.  Natural gas and LP gas poses the greatest potential hazard to personal safety among the products transported over the right of way.”

Texas Eastern is the pipeline division of Spectra Energy which is headquartered in nearby Houston.  Its 55-year-old, 30-inch natural gas pipeline was constructed in 1956, according to p. 11 of the final risk-analysis report.  The report notes that pipelines that are more than four decades old are “approaching the typical design lifetime” (pp. 4, 19 of print version).

Five of the pipelines are 50 years or older, according to the report (p. 11 of print version).

When this blog contacted Spectra Energy for comments to specific questions about the shut down of an elementary school and the abandonment of two buildings, the company responded 19 days later as follows:

“Unfortunately, given recent posts on your blog and other actions you’ve taken, we feel the foundation of trust and mutual respect upon which we believed our conversations were based, has been eliminated.  Given that, it would no longer be appropriate to respond to your correspondence.”

Toni Beck, Group Vice President – Internal & External Affairs                                   Spectra Energy E-mail, February 14, 2011

The questions I asked Spectra Energy include what additional maintenance action the company might take with its aging gas pipeline; whether it believed nearby homeowners were at risk; and whether Spectra Energy cooperated with the risk-analysis study.

Despite Spectra Energy’s decision that, “it would no longer be appropriate to respond,” action occurred the very next day after I sent the initial inquiry to the company.  Workers showed up at the pipeline corridor next to Pumphrey Elementary School and the West Town complex, and began to mark the pipeline.  The following day, they appeared to be conducting a ground survey of the pipeline corridor.

Now there is a big “for sale” sign in front of the school.


The Goose Creek school district summarized the board’s decision in several press releases issued between March and June 2009.4 One of the last announced a “farewell celebration” for June 4, 2009.  It summarized the school board’s decision as follows (emphasis added):

“The Goose Creek CISD [Consolidated Independent School District] Board voted in March [2009] to close Pumphrey Elementary School at the end of the school year.  The closing of the school and West Town complex follows a risk-analysis study of the two sites situated between two aging pipeline corridors. The risk-analysis study commissioned by the district concluded that should an incident – such as a leak or rupture – occur to a pipeline near the school or complex, there is a potential that students and/or staff could be injured or worse.

The risk-analysis study raises questions about the level of cooperation received from the pipeline companies.  For example, it made these points (emphasis added):5

  • “The conservatively low score characterizing relative risk of this pipeline right-of-way is a consequence of the minimal amount information available from the respective pipeline owners.”  (p. 3 of print version, Final Report)
  • “Accurately locating the embedded lines would be a straightforward matter for the pipeline owners.” (p. 3 of print version, Final Report)
  • “Corrosion studies for these lines are not available.  It would be a straight-forward matter for the respective pipeline owners to quantify corrosion effects.”  (p. 4 of print version, Final Report)

Perhaps ironically, Spectra Energy was part of a safety project between the U.S. Department of Transportation Research and Special Programs Administration and Texas Eastern as a result of the catastrophic failure of Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern gas transmission pipeline in Edison, New Jersey, on March 23, 1994.6

A “spirit of cooperation” was part of a Consent Agreement between the U.S. Department of Transportation and Texas Eastern, dated January 27, 1998. As a result of this agreement, “TETCO [Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation] agrees to conduct three pipeline safety projects that are described in the Addendum to this Agreement.”7

After that Consent Agreement came a 1999 report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  This document describes the catastrophic failure of the company’s gas transmission pipeline in New Jersey (p. 3 of print version):8

“Radiant heat from the fireball [500 feet high] ignited the roofs of buildings located more than 100 yards from the failure, destroyed 128 apartments and resulted in the evacuation of 1,500 people. ….

“The gas transmission company [Spectra Energy's Texas Eastern] took 2.5 hours to isolate the ruptured section of pipeline by operating manually operated valves, which contributed to the severity of the damages.”

Meanwhile, Spectra Energy is embroiled in a pipeline fight to expand its gas transmission pipeline through New Jersey into New York City.  The issue of safety is front and center.

“We’re proposing to build one of the safest natural gas pipelines in the United States,” according to Ed Gonzales, Project Manager for the Spectra Energy pipeline.  On a company video advertisement, he is also heard referring to “thicker pipe with remote controlled valves.”9

The key to evaluating Spectra Energy and the entire “natural” gas industry is not by its promises, but by its performance record.  A company’s track record is the best predictor of future performance.

As the public record documents, this is a company with a history of explosions, multi-million dollar fines, regulatory violations and related failures.10 The New Jersey public and elected officials will closely watch the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as it moves through its decision-making process regarding Spectra Energy’s proposed pipeline expansion.

The debate in New Jersey regarding Spectra Energy’s promise is juxtaposed with the Texas School Board’s decision to shut down an elementary school and another building, based on a risk analysis of an adjacent pipeline corridor.

In a “spirit of cooperation” – and without a Consent Agreement – this blog will add to the public record.  In a “Final Order” issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2001, Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern pipeline division was cited for a lack of pipeline maintenance:11

  • Failure to test for corrosion at ”cathodic protection test locations” for nearly 5 miles of pipeline (from milepost .85 to milepost 5.5) within the required 15-month interval, in the Monroe Area of Louisiana.
  • Failure to promptly install above ground pipeline markers showing the location of the pipeline going into the Entergy Plant Meter Station and at the above ground valve setting at the Entergy Plant lateral tap in the Baytown, Texas, area, which is accessible to the public.

Rather than trivializing such maintenance, the U.S. Department of Transportation emphasizes the importance this way:

  • Corrosion inspection and testing – “Inspection and testing at required intervals are essential to knowing that the pipeline equipment is being maintained, will function properly and that its integrity is not compromised.  Failure to perform the proper monitoring on each test station could result in inadequate protection of the pipe and could result in a leak in the future.” (Page 4 of print version.)
  • Above-ground pipeline markers – “Unmarked or inaccurate line markers increase the risk of harm to the public environment, and property.”

The Goose Creek school district’s risk-analysis report suggests similar maintenance concerns today, and the school board cited these in its press release of March 27, 2009 (emphasis added):12

  • “there also are visible evidence of substantial washout around two storm drainage access points, which are part of the storm drainage system adjacent to the right-of-way.  Washout occurs from water leaks in the underground drainage piping and the water could cause additional external corrosion of the pipelines carrying liquid and liquefied products in the pipeline corridor.”
  • “and third-party incursions onto the pipeline right of ways appear to be abundant.  Data indicates that the pipelines are buried approximately three feet below the surface.  Incursions meaning folks driving vehicles over the pipelines, onto the right of ways could potentially compromise the integrity of the buried lines.”

Spectra Energy may decide that “it would no longer be appropriate to respond” to a stakeholder, but it may not have the last word.  The Securities and Exchange Commission has publicly reminded Boards of Directors that they have an obligation to oversee their company’s risk management and risk strategy.  Once an issue of risk is identified, the Board has an obligation to look carefully at all dimensions of that risk.

Links & References

1, 2, 3, 5 PIPELINE RISK ANALYSIS:  Right-of-Way Adjacent to Pumphrey Elementary School – Prepared by Leslie E. Olson, Texas Transportation Institute; and Martin A. Wortman, Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Texas A&M University.  Final Report dated January 22, 2009.  Pdf file:  analysis-responsetoopenrecordsrequest

4, 12 Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District news releases on the subject of closing Pumphrey Elementary School and the West Town Complex – from March to June 2009.  Link: Or Pdf file:  goose-creek-cisd-news-releases

Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District Q&A document – This 26-page document is titled, “PUMPHREY ELEMENTARY – Questions Presented to Board Members.”  It is dated April 30, 2009.  Interim dates for additional Qs&As are March 31, April 9 and 22.  Pdf file:  1-gccpumphreyquestions

6, 8 Remotely Controlled Valves On Interstate Natural Gas Pipelines – U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Research and Special Programs Administration, dated September 1999.  It is worth noting that this report appears to depend largely on a public meeting or meetings that were “attended by approximately 31 people representing the gas pipeline industry, consultants to the gas pipeline industry, the Gas Research Institute, and RSPA [the U.S. DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration] staff.”  (Page 4 of printed report.) – Pdf file:  rcv_rptfnl11

7 Consent Agreement Between U.S. Department of Transportation and Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation – CPF No. 15102, dated January 27, 1998.  The “spirit of cooperation” reference is found on p. 2 of the print version.  The agreement to conduct “three pipeline safety projects” is found in Term 7 (p. 3 of print version).  A reasonable person may interpret the Consent Agreement as a “hall pass” after the Edison, New Jersey, catastrophic explosion.  As the second paragraph in Term 9 (p. 3 of print version) states (emphasis added):  “In particular, but in no way limiting the above provision, none of the above-mentioned documents, actions or communications shall constitute any evidence or an admission on TETCO’s [Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation] part, that any of the conditions alleged in the Notice existed or were the cause, or a cause, proximate or otherwise, of any accident, or damages, if any, resulting therefrom including, but not limited to, the natural gas incident that occurred on March 23, 1994 in Edison, New Jersey.”  Note that the fireball and radiant heat that “destroyed 128 apartments and resulted in the evacuation of 1,500 people” is referred to as “the natural gas incident.” Pdf file:  cpf15102a1

9 Spectra Energy’s 30-second video advertisment promising to build “one of the safest natural gas pipelines in the United States.”

9 News coverage of same – “Jersey City Pipeline Provokes Heated Debate,” NBC New York, by Reporter Ida Siegal, Feb. 22, 2011:

10 Spectra Energy’s Track Record – See the following two blog posts and note the references backed by public sources.

Spectra Energy – Again (Dec. 22, 2010):

Spectra Butter Job (Sept. 1, 2010):

Fighting a gas pipeline in your community? Go to school on the excellent work done by NO GAS PIPELINE in Jersey City.  Here’s the link:

11 Final Order in the matter of Texas Eastern by the U.S. Department of Transportation – CPF No. 4-2001-1001, dated 2001.  Pdf file:  cpf420011001o1

Recent & past pipeline disasters

Allentown, Pa., Explosion Leaves Five Dead — Authorities Investigate Explosion, Fires in Allentown Touched Off By Natural Gas Pipeline, ABC WORLD NEWS, FEB. 10, 2011

Hearings Set To Root Out Cause Of Pipeline Explosion – National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” by Richard Gonzales, March 1, 2011:

Policing America’s Vast Gas Pipeline System – National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” by Jeff Brady, March 1, 2011:

Home video footage of Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern pipeline explosion in Edison, New Jersey, March 1994

Standards for Gas Pipelines Unchanged Years After BlastThe New York Times, by John Sullivan, April 9, 1997:

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