Explosion rocks rural Ohio

3rd breach in gas pipeline this year sends huge fireball into sky; gas company has experienced 63 'incidents' since 2006

By Randy Ludlow and Jim Phillips
The Columbus Dispatch

JACKSONTOWN, Ohio — Hooper Ridge was scarred yesterday by the explosion of a natural-gas pipeline that sent a plume of fire hundreds of feet into the air and set buildings ablaze in the Morgan County countryside.

Only slight injuries were reported from the huge blast, which authorities said was felt and heard up to 12 miles away.

The high-pressure interstate pipeline, built in 1963 and operated by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., ruptured about 8:45 a.m., blowing apart three houses and a barn and charring trees and fields along Taylor Road.

John Sayers and his wife were staggered when the pipeline blew about 500 feet from their home. He recalled "an explosion and fire, and that's about it." His wife, Cathy, suffered minor leg burns. "Our house is destroyed. It's completely gone."

Nearby resident Tim Traxler heard a thunderous noise like a jet engine and then saw a giant red fireball rising. "When we got down to the site, they (the flames) were a couple of hundred feet in the air" near the Morgan-Athens county line.

One woman, who was found walking along a road carrying her dog, was treated at an Athens hospital for respiratory problems and released, authorities said.

The pipeline fire died out about three hours after workers stemmed the flow of natural gas through the damaged 25-inch pipeline. It carves through Ohio from near Portsmouth to near Youngstown for about 200 miles on its way between southern Texas and New England.

Fourteen fire departments from Morgan, Athens and Perry counties responded to douse fires triggered by the explosion. Smoke continued to rise from smoldering fires in the area yesterday evening.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio will monitor the investigation of the cause of the explosion by the pipeline owner and then submit its findings to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, PUCO spokesman Matt Butler said.

The pipeline also was rocked by an explosion on Feb. 10 near Hanoverton in Columbiana County in eastern Ohio after a joint of the pipeline failed. No one was injured in that explosion, which damaged one house. The pipeline also suffered another leak, but no explosion, in the same area on March 1.

Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., in a subsequent agreement with federal regulators, agreed to repair potentially unsafe sections of the pipeline and improve its inspections and monitoring to correct problems that pose an "integrity risk to public safety, property or the environment."

Spokesman Richard Wheatley said the Houston-based pipeline company immediately sent workers to the area of the explosion to shut off the gas. Natural gas that would have flowed through the damaged portion was routed to the company's other pipelines in the area to preserve the flow to customers, he said, adding that it is too early to speculate on the cause of the blast.

Nationwide, Tennessee Gas Pipeline has experienced 63 "incidents" since 2006 that injured two people and caused $76 million in property damage, according to federal data.

In 2007, El Paso Corp., the parent company of Tennessee Gas Pipeline, paid a $15.5 million fine to federal regulators over a 2000 explosion near Carlsbad, N.M., that killed 12 people camping near a 50-year-old pipeline.

As part of a settlement, El Paso committed to spending $86 million to modify and improve its pipeline system.

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