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Explosion at Enbridge gas line launches lengthy probe, possible repercussions

A deadly explosion along a portion of Enbridge Inc.'s Texas Eastern Transmission LP interstate natural gas pipeline marks the second time this year that a blast has interrupted service on the system, even as efforts to boost safety in pipeline operations advance in the U.S. Senate.

A rupture on the Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline caused a massive explosion in Lincoln County, Ky., early Aug. 1, killing at least one woman and injuring several others, Kentucky's WKYT-TV reported. Texas Eastern declared a force majeure due to the explosion, saying it is working on restoring the line to full capacity. However, the estimated time of completion for the restoration is "unclear," Texas Eastern said in a notice.

Enbridge said it had isolated the affected portion of the Texas Eastern system, which can transport 13 Bcf/d along 8,835 miles of pipe that travel from the U.S. Gulf Coast through the mid-Atlantic and on to the Northeast.

Investigations into pipeline explosions such as the Lincoln County blast can often be concluded in several weeks, but the inquiry could stretch on for months since a fatality occurred, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of pipeline investigation and auditing firm Accufacts Inc.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, sent an investigator to the scene and was in communication with Kentucky officials and staff at the National Transportation Safety Board, said Darius Kirkwood, public affairs specialist at PHMSA. Subject matter experts from PHMSA's Office of Pipeline Safety were also en route to Lincoln County, and senior leadership is monitoring the situation closely, he said in an email.

On the same day as the Kentucky explosion, U.S. senators advanced a bill to reauthorize PHMSA, including safety provisions spearheaded by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in the wake of a deadly series of explosions and fires on a natural gas distribution system in his home state.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on July 31 put the bill on a path to the full chamber after tacking on an amendment meant to expedite an outstanding rulemaking on natural gas gathering lines from PHMSA.

The committee incorporated a significant portion of Markey's separate bill, the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, into the PHMSA reauthorization bill introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., chair of the committee's Transportation and Safety subcommittee, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., the ranking member on the subcommittee. Markey's bill was named for the sole casualty of the gas-fueled explosions and fires that damaged dozens of homes in Merrimack Valley in northern Massachusetts.

The PHMSA bill used parts of Markey's legislation that included a requirement that qualified professionals approve gas engineering plans and system updates, as well as mandates for companies to monitor gas system pressure during construction, incorporate backup technology into regulator stations and keep maps of pipeline systems. The measures are meant to prevent disasters like the one that rocked the Merrimack Valley, where excessive gas pressure in a gas distribution system led to the accident.

NiSource Inc. and its utility subsidiary Columbia Gas of Massachusetts are still paying for the September 2018 blasts, with NiSource raising its estimate for costs associated with the incident for the third quarter in a row, pushing its total liability further above the cap on its insurance policies. The company now expects to spend within a range of $1.67 billion to $1.72 billion to cover the cost of pipeline replacement and restoration, third-party claims and other expenses tied to the disaster.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, formally known as Bay State Gas Co., also agreed to pay $143 million to settle all class-action lawsuits stemming from the blasts. The utility will pay the amount into a settlement fund for a class of plaintiffs comprising affected residents and businesses, according to a July 29 SEC filing.