Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Natural gas pipeline ruptures east of I-30 bridge, closing two miles of Arkansas River

Posted By on Tue, Jun 2, 2015 at 7:36 PM

NOT IDEAL CONDITIONS FOR A SEARCH: The swollen Arkansas River near the Clinton Library in May, not far from the site of the pipeline rupture. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • NOT IDEAL CONDITIONS FOR A SEARCH: The swollen Arkansas River near the Clinton Library in May, not far from the site of the pipeline rupture.

UPDATE June 2, 11:00 p.m.: A spokesperson from Spectra Energy, the operator of the Texas Eastern pipeline, spoke with me this evening about the incident. See below for details.

The U.S. Coast Guard has confirmed news that began circulating earlier today: A pipeline that carries natural gas across the Arkansas River ruptured in Little Rock yesterday or over the weekend. The breach occurred east of the I-30 bridge.

click to enlarge THE CHRIS M: Towboat damaged by pipeline in photo from several years ago. - JIM PITCOCK
  • Jim Pitcock
  • THE CHRIS M: Towboat damaged by pipeline in photo from several years ago.
Lieutenant Brian Porter, a public affairs officer for the Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River in Memphis, said it appears no one was injured in the accident, but one vessel — a towboat called the Chris M — was damaged. Porter said the Coast Guard was alerted to the rupture by a call on Monday, June 1 at 2 p.m. It has closed the river to commercial traffic from mile markers 116 to 118 while it assesses the situation. 

The line in question is the Texas Eastern, which is owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy.  Phil West, a spokesperson for Spectra, spoke with the Times about the breach on Tuesday evening.

West said the rupture occurred on a 4.6 mile back-up section of 24-inch pipeline that runs parallel to another pipe the company normally uses to transport natural gas north from Texas to Arkansas and other states beyond. Both are buried beneath the Arkansas River. Gas was not flowing through the back-up line at the time, West said — the material that escaped was only the gas present in that 4.6 mile stretch. He said the company "has not yet determined a cause" for the break.

"We have two pipelines that run across the river in the area, and the one that [ruptured] is an auxiliary. It’s not normally in use. It’s a way to transfer gas across the river when the other pipe is not in use," West said. "There’s valves on either side of that that isolate the line ... the release was contained to the section on either sides of that valve."

About 3.9 million cubic feet were released, or 3900 Mcf in the volume units commonly used within the gas industry. Although that may sound like a large amount at first glance, West said "that is, in natural gas terms, a relatively small number ... On any given day, we send billions of cubic feet through our pipeline." West provided some additional numbers by email to contextualize the figure: "Arkansas consumed about 282.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2013. That’s approximately 774.8 million cubic feet per day."

As for cleanup concerns, he said, "all of the gas in that line would bubble to the surface and dissipate into the atmosphere quickly."

West said Spectra was shutting down its primary pipeline underneath the Arkansas "out of an abundance of caution" as it investigates the cause of the rupture. Spectra delivers gas to Centerpoint Energy, but West said neither retail nor industrial customers in Arkansas should expect any interference in service because of the accident.

He also said the company had sent a response crew to the site, including divers, but flood conditions on the Arkansas have interfered with that effort. "They experienced swifter currents than they expected and decided to come out," he stated. West could not yet confirm that the company has been searching for a missing piece of pipe in the river. Porter, the Coast Guard spokesperson, told the Times earlier today that the crew was trying to locate a section of pipe but had not yet found it.

The tugboat damaged by the rupture, said Porter, "sustained damage on the port side, the smokestack and main deck." It's not yet known whether the pipeline was somehow struck by the Chris M or if it exploded for a different reason. 

"We sent a warrant officer out there today — he'll gather that information, what happened, the course of path. We can find out if they were involved in that situation, but we may not know for awhile what happened. ... We're investigating it from a marine casualty standpoint."

Other agencies will likely get involved as well, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and possibly state environmental regulators. The Army Corps could not be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon evening.

Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club, issued the following statement on Tuesday afternoon: 

This spill is yet another example of the dangers posed to Arkansas by pipelines and dirty fuels. Whether we are talking about oil spills in Mayflower or the gas spill this week, the dangers to our health and natural resources from ruptured pipelines are enormous and unnecessary.

As the number of pipeline accidents pile up in Arkansas, it is time for our state to start moving away from dirty and dangerous fuels. Step one should be stopping the construction of new dangerous pipelines currently proposed for Arkansas. Pipeline ruptures in Arkansas are becoming commonplace—how many will it take before we, as a state, finally say no?

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