CA natural gas pipeline explosion has some wondering about Tucson - Tucson News Now

CA natural gas pipeline explosion has some wondering about Tucson systems

By Barbara Grijalva - email

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD) - The pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, has people wondering.

Investigators still are working to find out why a major, high pressure natural gas pipeline exploded, killing at least four people and decimating a neighborhood.

What about Tucson's natural gas pipe system?

It may sound cliché, but there are a lot of people wondering if something like the San Bruno explosion could happen here.

Incidents do happen.

Just about every Tucson neighborhood has natural gas pipelines running through it underground. That can be even in neighborhoods that are all electric. Those pipelines belong to Southwest Gas Corporation.

Plus, Tucson also has the larger, higher pressure, El Paso natural gas pipelines running through it. That might be of more concern to some people.

Who's in charge of all this, and what are they doing to keep us safe?

We went to the Southwest Gas dispatch center that operates 24/7 in Tucson.

Emergencies come up on the screens.

Southwest Gas spokeswoman Libby Howell says, "We take those calls very seriously. Every one of those calls is considered an emergency. We put that call ahead of any other service orders that might be in the system. We send someone out immediately to check it."

Southwest Gas also monitors and tests its lines.

Howell says, "There are federal regulations that determine how and how frequently we must inspect pipe. At southwest gas we either meet or exceed those federal requirements."

Besides a call from someone smelling gas, and gas line monitoring, Southwest Gas has inspectors in the field, surveying the lines.

Jeff Gardner is one of them. He has a handheld detector.

"If there's a leak, it tells me by audible signal," Gardner says.

Gardner also drives a sniffer truck. It's a vehicle equipped with six detectors attached to the front.

They hang just above the ground.

"What it is is a vacuum that's sucking up the air, analyzing it for natural gas," Gardner explains.

It was a sniffer truck that detected a leak near Tucson Mall in May of last year, leading to the evacuation of four businesses while the leak was fixed.

In its system, Southwest Gas uses small, low pressure pipe to distribute natural gas to our homes.

Libby Howell explains,"The line in question, for example, in California was a 30-inch diameter line.  Most of the mains you see for us in the streets are four-inch diameter, very much smaller."

El Paso Corporation's web site says it "owns North America's largest natural gas pipeline system."

It ships natural gas all over the country through the larger, higher pressure lines.

An El Paso spokesman says, in the Tucson area, they are from 10-to-26 inches in diameter.

Both El Paso and Southwest Gas say their "number one" priority is safety. We called El Paso to ask how they care for their pipelines.

Spokesman Richard Wheatley says, "We check the right-of-ways by vehicles and by air, and we also monitor our pipelines 365 days a year, 24/7 by electronic instrumentation."

Wheatley says El Paso continually tests, inspects and maintains its pipelines.

"For example, over the last year-and-a-half we did a line replacement in the south Tucson and west mountain area...the "A" mountain area, and that was essentially to replace line, to test it and to upgrade the lines," Wheatley says.

This link will take you to a map of the El Paso gas pipelines through Tucson.

The web site was experiencing higher than normal activity and you may need to try a few times to get to the map. 

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