Tag: natural gas pipelines

Are you sitting on top of a leaking gas line? Part One of a Series


(Part One of a series aimed at neighborhood or workplace teams)

An often-overlooked threat

Be safe from leaking gas line

Read before you toss as junk mail!

The word “disaster” usually makes people think about natural disasters like tornado, flood, or earthquake.  You’ve probably already talked in your group about how to prepare for these threats.

But unless we’re reminded by notices from our local utility we may never even think about the gas lines that run under or near our homes or places of business.

And if we take the time to learn even more, we will discover that any gas line could be a leaking gas line! Moreover, a big enough gas leak can be deadly.

Time for your group to be asking: Where are the gas lines around us?

Finding out where the gas lines run in your neighborhood will take some effort.

In the years that we’ve been studying our own community we have run up against resistance from a number of sources. As can be expected, cities and gas line operators are concerned about sabotage and/or terrorist activities. They protect the details of their systems from everyone, including residents.

Moreover, a leaking gas line may or may not be repaired even though it has been noted. As you can imagine,  a utility company really doesn’t want you looking over their shoulder when it comes to their maintenance policies!

Still, a good emergency response group wants to understand its community’s risks, and so the group perseveres . . .!

Three places to start your research.

1-The National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) is an online map provided by the Department of Transportation. As a member of the public you can search by your State and COUNTY to get an idea of where gas transmission and hazardous gas pipelines are located.

I say “get an idea” because the public viewer is good only to +/- 500 ft.  (If you are actually going to dig, then you need to contact your local pipeline operator – or call 811 – to find out exactly where the pipes are.)

Here’s the link to the map (“Public Map Viewer”):  https://www.npms.phmsa.dot.gov/Default.aspx

2-Your local gas company

Here in California we have two of the largest public utilities in the country, and our local utility provides a map showing transmission and distribution lines. Once again, the authors of the map stress that the maps are accurate only to +/- 500 ft. Still, we can easily identify the “hazardous liquid” line running along the railroad tracks very near our home.

My research on other utility companies shows that there is no consistency. Many of the utility company websites simply refer readers to the National Pipeline Mapping System.

3-Your local pipeline operator

The pipeline operator is not necessarily the same as the utility.

Keep your eye open for pipeline signs. They are not required, nor are they necessarily placed in the same way every time. What they seem to have in common is the gold color.

The round warning sign will tell you who the pipeline operator is. (You’ll see a round sign on the brochure in the image above, too.) Write down the name and emergency phone number. You may be able to get further information about that particular pipeline and what it carries from the operator.

Kinder Morgan is the largest pipeline operator in the country. Its website says it transports nearly 40% of all piped natural gas, refined petroleum products, crude oil, carbon dioxide (CO2) and more. I found this map at their website. It shows just their biggest pipes. As you might expect, Kinder Morgan has a number of competitors.

Kinder/Morgan PipelinesThe point of all this is that with some digging (bad joke!) you can discover a lot about where pipelines are in your community and who is responsible for them.

How we got information about our own community.

This Advisory is meant to give you an idea of where to start. Different members of our neighborhood emergency response group took on different tasks in researching our gas pipelines.

  • I tracked down online maps like the ones shown in this Advisory.
  • One member hiked along the nearby railroad tracks and photographed a construction project. His photos show the size and exact location of gas lines.
  • One member went to city hall to get the original construction drawings for our community. These drawings show not only the location but also the size of the various pipes in the network, plus shut-off valves.
  • As a group we queried the management of our community regarding make-up and maintenance of our local system.
  • Our group invited the fire department, the police department and our local utility to special meetings on gas safety. (You will not be surprised to learn that they don’t always agree on where the lines are, what information to share or how to respond in an emergency!)

OK, so we now have an idea of where the pipelines are and what they are carrying.

And we found that gas is leaking from all these systems all the time!

With over 200,000 miles of pipelines, and many of them decades old, it’s to be expected that there will be leaks. In fact, distribution companies track something called “lost and unaccounted for” product.  One report has their measurements ranging from under 1% to over 4%!  (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-much-natural-gas-leaks/)

What causes the leaks? Common causes are simple deterioration, overgrown and over-stressed systems, defective equipment, incorrect hookups, code violations, faulty manufacturing of tanks and/or appliances — and natural ground shifts due to floods, earthquakes, etc.

Most of the time gas that escapes isn’t even noticed (except by the atmosphere, of course, since methane – the main component of natural gas – is 30 times more potent as a heat trapping gas than CO2.)  But any time there’s a leaking gas line, there’s a potential for explosion or fire.

The key is to keep gas from building up until it reaches the level where it can explode — that is, to where it makes up between 5 and 15% of the atmosphere. A whiff of gas won’t explode.  A mix that is too rich won’t explode. There is a 10% window in which it can ignite.

Good to know!

In Part Two we’ll share what we have learned about finding leaks!

Click here to move right on to Part Two.

Virginia Nicols
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team