Pipeline Safety Agency Taking 'Aggressive' Action Against Oklahoma Firm

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has proposed a $600,000 fine against Williams Gas Pipeline-Transco of Tulsa, Okla., for alleged federal pipeline safety violations that resulted in the release of natural gas and the evacuation of more than 850 school children and other residents in a heavily populated northern Virginia neighborhood.

The proposed fine follows PHMSA's investigation of an Oct. 3, 2005, incident in Chantilly, Va., in which Williams' workers struck the company's own 36-inch natural gas pipeline during maintenance operations, according to PHMSA.

"Our investigation into this incident identified safety procedure lapses that operators must prevent," said PHMSA Acting Administrator Brigham McCown. "The action we are taking is aggressive, and meant to underscore the importance of safe excavations and proper operator qualifications."

During the investigation, PHMSA's inspectors determined Williams allegedly:

  • Failed to properly locate its underground pipelines for digging or excavation activities;
  • Failed to ensure personnel performing covered tasks were appropriately qualified;
  • Did not follow written procedures for conducting operations and maintenance activities; and
  • Neglected to provide proper pipeline records including construction maps to appropriate personnel.

The agency cited Williams with a notice of probable violation outlining each of the specific violations discovered during the investigation.

The proposed fine demonstrates PHMSA's stepped-up effort to improve operator safety performance and promote compliance, McCown said. He added that his agency is considering tougher requirements for all operator qualifications as a result of the Chantilly and other incidents.

As part of its response, McCown said that Williams will be required to conduct its own investigation to determine the cause of the incident and implement a plan to improve future investigation and excavation processes.

PHMSA also is issuing an advisory bulletin to operators outlining existing federal requirements to follow when conducting excavation activities.

"Operators must be reminded that they are their own first line of defense in preventing damage to underground utilities and protecting the public and that anything less will not be tolerated," McCown said.

Chris Stockton, a spokesperson for Williams Gas Pipeline-Transco, said the October natural gas release in Virginia "was an isolated incident."

"That was very uncharacteristic of our normal operations," Stockton said. "We have taken corrective action to hopefully ensure that this does not happen again."

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