| NEW YORK, Sept 30
NEW YORK, Sept 30 On a routine check of a
surface coal mining facility in rural Alabama early this month,
inspector Randall Aldridge first smelled gasoline. Then he saw
dead plants and animals along a man-made pond that helps the
region manage heavy rain.
The cause had nothing to do with a mine.
Aldridge happened upon a leak on the main fuel artery to the
U.S. East Coast known as the Colonial Pipeline, in what turned
out to be the company's largest gasoline spill in nearly 20
Colonial Pipeline Co and its peers in the oil and gasoline
transport sector, tout high-tech, complex leak detections
systems that measure hydraulic data and count on overhead
flights and other measures to ensure their pipelines work
efficiently and safely.
But the fact these systems did not flag the Colonial
Pipeline spill is not unique.
A Reuters review of U.S. federal records shows that
sensitive technology designed to pick up possible spills is
about as successful as a random member of the public like
Aldridge finding it, despite efforts from pipeline operators.
In the past 20 months, Colonial has had eight pipeline
spills across its 5,500-mile (8,851 km) fuel pipeline system.
None of them were uncovered by the company's primary
leak-detection system, according to federal data.
Colonial did not provide any explanation why the system did
not detect any of the most recent leaks.
"Colonial Pipeline has robust system integrity, inspection
and maintenance programs that meet or exceed all federal
regulatory requirements," the company said in an emailed
The issue stretches beyond Colonial. Over the last six
years, there have been 466 incidents where a pipeline carrying
crude oil or refined products has leaked. Of those, 105, or 22
percent, were detected by an advanced detection system,
according to a Reuters analysis of U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous
Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) data.
The others were discovered in different ways, including 99
leaks found by the public.
Detection is critical because the earlier a leak is found,
the less damage to the environment and the pipeline. In the 361
pipeline incidents that went undetected by internal systems
since 2010, a total of 141,421 barrels of petroleum products
spilled, totaling $1.2 billion in property damage, the data
Pipeline safety is a hot-button issue since demand for new
infrastructure picked up to move fuel coming from the U.S. shale
boom. But there has been push-back. Most recently, in response
to protests, the Obama Administration agreed to delay the
completion of Energy Transfer Partners' s crude-oil
Dakota Access Pipeline, citing concerns about a leak that could
contaminate water supply.
Operators have turned to these detection systems to help
ease concerns about leaks becoming big spills, lifting the total
market size for these products to about $1.1 billion in 2015.
Energy Transfer Partners which, for example, has said that it
would use technology on the Dakota pipeline to detect leaks as
small as 1 percent of its flow rate, or about 4,700 barrels,
according to Reuters calculations.
The top suppliers of the most widely used leak detection
system to oil and gasoline markets include Schneider Electric SE
, Emerson Process Management, Yokogawa Electric Corp
, Honeywell International Inc., and ABB Ltd
, according to ARC Advisory Group.
"Pipeline leak detection is not a one dimensional problem
and, in all cases, requires a multiple pronged approach for
success," Mike Tankersley, director of pipeline simulation for
Schneider Electric said.
Computational Pipeline Model (CPM) based technology for leak
detection is most successful when combined with good
infrastructure, a reliable monitoring system and efforts in the
control room, he added.
Honeywell, Yokogawa, Emerson Process Management and ABB did
not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. regulators declined to comment on the Colonial Pipeline
failure to detect the leak because it is part of the ongoing
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety
Administration published a congressionally-mandated report in
2012 that provided no recommendations, but did note that
computerized detection of spills is uncommon. Pipeline operators
utilize systems with varying degrees of sophistication amid a
lack of broad-based regulations, according to the report.
MISSING BIG LEAKS
Colonial's detection system, first deployed in the 1970s,
has undergone several updates, the latest of which is underway
and expected to be complete in 2018.
Pipelines rely on detailed inspections, corrosion prevention
and public awareness campaigns. The most common leak detection
method for pipeline operators is called the Supervisory Control
And Data Acquisition (SCADA) system.
The SCADA system is the brain of the pipeline systems, using
a series of sensors to track data such as pressure, flow rates,
temperature, and whether valves are open or closed.
The information is then relayed to a control room, where
trained operators are often required to distinguish between
false alarms and real leaks.
The system's capability to detect drops in pressure and
volumes and identify possible spills has driven pipeline
companies to use it as their primary leak detection method. Some
systems, however, have added the Computational Pipeline
Monitoring System (CPM), whose main task is to detect leaks.
Since 2010, there have been 264 pipeline spills where a CPM
was functioning at the time of the incident, federal data shows.
The leaks were detected by the CPM 19 percent of the time,
according to the data.
The section of pipeline involved in the recent Colonial
Pipeline spill did not have a CPM.
The environmental assessment of ETP's controversial Dakota
Access project notes that CPM will be one of nearly a dozen ways
in which leaks will be detected.
Federal data shows the leak detection systems have caught
small leaks and missed some of the largest. Six out of the
largest 10 pipeline spills in the U.S. since 2010, all of which
were as big or bigger than the Colonial spill, went undetected
by the system.
Larger pipelines with multiple exit and entry points, such
as the Colonial, make leak detection more complicated, experts
say. The opposite can be true for shorter pipelines that serve
fewer users and are better at detecting spills.
Colonial's September spill caused a near two-week partial
shutdown that sent pump prices soaring in the U.S. southeast.
Preliminary reports show that the company's detection system
showed no signs of a significant pressure loss, a key sign of a
leak. An overhead flight on Sept. 7 - two days before the leak
was discovered - also did not raise any red flags.
(Additional reporting Liz Hampton in Houston; editing by David
Gaffen and Edward Tobin)