Kansas’ two senators have geared up for another try at restarting safety inspections of underground natural gas storage facilities like the one that caused the deadly Hutchinson explosions in 2001.
And the president’s transportation secretary agrees it’s a problem that needs to be solved.
Storage fields holding billions of cubic feet of natural gas have gone uninspected in Kansas for five years, since a federal court ruled that interstate gas safety is a federal government responsibility and the state, which had been doing the inspections, had no authority to.
Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran are hoping to tie storage inspections to a “must pass” pipeline safety reauthorization bill scheduled to be taken up by the Senate in the next month.
They initially introduced a bill to restore inspections in 2011, after The Eagle reported the lack of oversight and the potential danger to Kansans who live near — and in some cases on top of — underground gas storage sites. They tried again in 2013.
The bill went nowhere in the gridlocked Senate, but Roberts and Moran reintroduced it again last month.
“This year we have a real opportunity to get this bill passed as part of the Pipeline Safety Act, the law that authorizes federal pipeline safety programs, which is set to expire in September,” Roberts said in an e-mail. “We will work with our colleagues on the Commerce Committee to see that our bill is a part of this debate, whether it is an amendment on the floor, or is included in the underlying bill language.”
“That bill is important, noncontroversial and it just needs to get done,” Moran said. “We need to redouble our efforts to get it accomplished.”
The bill would authorize the Kansas Corporation Commission to restart the inspection schedule that was put into state law after the Hutchinson explosion.
In that disaster, gas from a leaky storage facility at Yaggy migrated seven miles underground and popped up through abandoned brine wells in Hutchinson. The gas exploded, destroying half a city block of businesses downtown and shattering windows for blocks around.
No one died in the first explosion. But a day later, gas popped up through another well in a mobile home park and an explosion killed two senior citizens in their home.
It took more than a month for the gas to finish burning off.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said the lack of oversight of underground gas storage is a problem that needs to be fixed.
“This is emblematic of what is an increasingly significant challenge to our country, which is as we have more natural resources that are used as energy products, our safety regimes have to step up too,” Foxx said.
He said he hadn’t yet read the Roberts/Moran inspection bill and couldn’t comment on it directly. But he said he doesn’t oppose the concept of the state having some oversight authority of gas storage.
“In general, the more eyes we have on safety, the better,” he said.
Kansas has 18 underground storage reservoirs with a capacity of 284 billion cubic feet of gas, according to 2013 statistics, the most recent compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
The facility that caused the Hutchinson disaster, a salt cavern site, was one of the smallest in the state.
‘This threat is real’
If the federal government won’t inspect gas storage, the state must be allowed to, Roberts said.
“It’s been over 10 years since we lost two lives to a gas explosion in Hutchinson, and the federal government is still not monitoring interstate natural gas storage facilities despite these tragedies,” Roberts said. “This threat is real.”
“Our first priority is to protect Kansans from harm,” he added. “We need strong oversight in the storage of natural gas reserves, and in the absence of federal leadership, the state must be allowed to step up and protect its people. I trust our guys on the ground to protect their families, friends and neighbors.”
Moran said he’s frustrated at the slow pace of restoring inspections to what have proven to be potentially dangerous facilities. Although the legislation hasn’t gotten traction as a stand-alone bill, there are other possible routes to get it through, he said.
“Time on the Senate floor is at a premium, so it’s likely to be an amendment offered to a transportation bill, to an appropriation bill, something that just has to pass,” he said.
Foxx said he didn’t know why the Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over interstate fuel transport, didn’t pick up the inspection of underground gas storage facilities after the court ruled the state couldn’t do it.
“Our Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is under-resourced and … that might be playing a role in why we can’t be more aggressive,” Foxx said. “Clearly we have work to do in making sure we are using every available resource as efficiently and effectively as we can.
“But I think from a safety standpoint, I think we are experiencing a little cognitive dissonance when it comes to the proliferation of energy products in our country and the need to amp up the safety as it relates to both the storage and transport.”
Foxx said the department has “gotten some good things done in the last year or so,” citing the Crude by Rail Act passed to improve efforts to prevent and respond to oil train accidents.
“But on these storage issues, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Foxx said.
This article was written by DION LEFLER from The Wichita Eagle and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.