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Natural gas pipeline leaks are fairly common across the US. But they’re rarely deadly in NC.

Explosion destroys Durham building killing at least 1, injuring many others

Search-and-rescue teams are sifting through the rubble after an explosion Wednesday morning in downtown Durham left one person dead and 17 people injured.
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Search-and-rescue teams are sifting through the rubble after an explosion Wednesday morning in downtown Durham left one person dead and 17 people injured.

Natural gas-related pipeline incidents — like the one that rocked downtown Durham on Wednesday — have happened more than 700 times across the United States in the past 20 years, leading to more than 250 deaths.

But in North Carolina, there were only 44 incidents during that time period, resulting in just seven injuries and no deaths. Those figures do not include Durham’s blast, in which one person was killed and 25 were injured, some severely.

Records at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, say that from 1999 through 2018, there were 715 “serious” incidents involving lines used to extract or move natural gas across the country and into neighborhoods, homes and businesses. The agency defines a serious incident as one resulting in death or injury.

The incidents resulted in at least 258 deaths and 1,165 injuries nationwide.

The explosion in Durham happened after a subcontractor broke a 2-inch distribution line while boring under a sidewalk.

Data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation show that excavation is the leading cause of pipeline breaks. In North Carolina from 1999 to 2018, at least 25 of the 44 reported incidents were caused by excavation, the agency said. In some cases, the exact cause of the incident is not identified.

A spokesman for the agency said it had sent “a couple” of investigators to Durham but that they would be there to assist the state, which is leading the investigation.

The statistics include only incidents on pipelines and pipeline facilities. They do not count the gas leak and explosion that happened in June 2009 at the ConAgra Slim Jim manufacturing plant near Garner that killed four people and injured dozens more.

A report by the U.S. Chemical Hazard and Safety Investigation Board said the ConAgra accident happened when installers of a new gas-fired industrial water heater vented natural gas into the building to purge a new supply line that had been run along the roof to supply the appliance. Venting was inadequate to clear the gas, and workers did not use monitors to check the gas buildup. It accumulated and was ignited, possibly by one of several machines nearby, investigators said.

Workers in adjacent areas of the building had not been told to evacuate as the work was going on.

The blast damaged or collapsed more than half the building’s roof, which was built of heavy, pre-formed concrete slabs. Three of those who died were killed by falling debris. A worker installing the water heater died months later from burn injuries.

The report notes there had been a similar supply-line venting incident at a fitness center in Cary in August 1997, which collapsed the roof, severely burned two people and injured four others.

There has been at least one other major gas pipeline incident in North Carolina in recent memory.

On Aug. 5, 1987, a utility crew was working to repair a gas leak along Market Street in Wilmington when the gas ignited. Nineteen people were burned, including an assistant fire chief who later died from his injuries. The Wilmington Star News reported at the time that some victims ran from the scene with their hair on fire.

According to a report released March 29 by the Congressional Research Service, the federal pipeline safety program resides primarily within the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. But inspection and enforcement relies mostly on partnerships with the states.

Fire and police radio traffic give the sequence of events leading up to the gas explosion at 115 N. Duke St. in Durham, NC on April 10, 2019.

The federal agency provides grants to states to help pay for inspection and enforcement.

The report says the 2020 fiscal year budget proposed by President Donald Trump would reduce funding for the agency by about 8 percent, which would preserve most of the agency’s jobs but would likely reduce the grants it makes to states.

In North Carolina, the state Utilities Commission oversees the natural gas pipeline system.

State and federal agencies say a critical step in preventing broken gas lines caused by digging is for the excavator to notify pipeline operators in advance about plans to dig in a particular spot. In North Carolina, the place to start is by calling 811 or 800-632-4949 three days before digging.

The call center will contact the proper utility company, which will send out someone to mark underground lines. The calls and the line-marking are free.

An October 2018 report by the Utilities Commission says the natural gas industry in North Carolina generated $1.45 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2017-18.

Firefighters work to extinguish flames created by a gas explosion on N. Duke St. in downtown Durham on Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2019. As of 12:45 p.m. the blast killed at least one person and injured 15.

Staying safe around natural gas

Signs of a possible natural gas leak:

A rotten-egg odor.

Discolored or dead vegetation over or near the pipeline.

A hissing, whistling or roaring sound near a gas appliance or pipeline.

Dirt or debris being blown into the air.

Persistent bubbles in streams, ponds or wet areas.

Flames, if a leak has been ignited.

If you suspect a leak:

Leave the area immediately.

Warn others to stay away.

From a safe place, call 911 and then the utility company.

Don’t try to turn the gas on or off.

Don’t smoke, use a lighter or strike a match.

Don’t use any electric switch, telephone or cell phone, garage-door opener or flashlight, as they can cause sparks and ignite gas.

Don’t start vehicles, machines or other things that might spark.

Source: PSNC Energy/Dominion Energy

Here's what to do if you think you've detected a natural gas leak in your home.

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Staff writer Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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