WAVE 3 Investigates: Danger below ground

Jim Hall
Jim Hall
Dr. Thomas Rockaway
Dr. Thomas Rockaway
Brian Phillips
Brian Phillips

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Homes and even lives has been lost across the country due to natural gas line explosions that haven't been due to someone digging where they shouldn't. We investigated the condition of gas lines in our area, and what's being done to keep things safe.

"This is a national safety issue because in many local communities because of a lack of local rules and regulation. Neighborhoods have grown and sprawled over these pipes," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

What Hall is talking about are underground pipes filled with potentially explosive natural gas. It's something a San Francisco suburb knows all too well. Last year, a blast killed eight people and destroyed or damaged 38 homes. Experts say those important pipes become a matter of 'out of sight, out of mind.'

"It's a huge underground system that we have that most people don't see," said Dr. Thomas Rockaway, a University of Louisville professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Thousands of miles of pipes make up the below-ground network here at home.

"Almost to our detriment, we don't think about them and forget about some of the maintenance issues that go along with them and it's up to the individual companies that they maintain their systems so that they perform as we expect them to," Dr. Rockaway said.

Just a few years ago, a gas line that was nearly 50 years old exploded in Eastern Kentucky's Floyd County. Five homes were leveled and nearly a dozen people were injured. But while many pipes have been in the ground for decades, don't think newer is always better.

"We have some pipes in the ground that are over 100 years old and they are performing very, very well," said Dr. Rockaway. "We have some pipes in the ground that are 30 and 40 years old and they're already starting to be a cause of concern."

So just what do these gas lines look like?

"A standard line that's typical of a neighborhood has a 4 inch distribution main that attaches to the customer service," said Brian Phillips, a LG&E spokesperson.

While federal and state governments do some regulation and enforcement, the responsibility largely falls on the utility company to inspect and maintain those lines.

"We perform those visual inspections," said Phillips. "We also take technology where we can actually see/send through the line - it's called a smart pig and what that does is it takes read outs of the density of the walls to see if there's any corrosion within the pipeline and it helps us pinpoint any issue."

LG&E says they've also been replacing older lines since the mid 1990's.

"What we're in the process of doing is a long term main replacement project that's about 618 miles. We're about halfway through and to give you an idea that's about the distance from Louisville to Panama City, Florida," Phillips said.

Crews say it's actually people, not the parts, that are their main concern. LG&E says a majority of ruptured gas lines are because of people digging where they shouldn't. But with such a sprawling network, it's really hard to tell where things are beneath the ground.  By making a simple phone call, crews will come out to your home and do the work for you.

Yellow lines and flags often indicate gas lines; blue indicates water. All help to give you a better picture of what you can't see.

While utility crews work hard to prevent devastating events here in Kentuckiana, they say you can help too by using your nose. While natural gas has no odor, utilities add an odorant that smells like rotten eggs or sulfur to help identify a leak. Also, be on the lookout for anything suspicious near your home.

"One sign that you may have a gas leak is if you have dead vegetation around where one of the lines may be located so that's one sign. If you have blowing dirt or water that's bubbling," Philips said.

LG&E recommends you call 811 before you dig.

There's also a website set-up to help give you an idea of what's below the ground. Click here to be taken to it.

Dr. Rockaway and a team of other experts across Kentucky have also put together a Infrastructure Report Card. Click here to access it.

Copyright 2011 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.