By Daniel Thompson
Reporter 

Conflicting reports emerge in wake of gas line explosion near Bushnell

 

Daniel Thompson

Officials continue to look into the cause of a gas line rupture that awoke residents near Bushnell in the early hours of May 4.

The gas line that burst in the early hours of May 4 north of Bushnell near where County Road 17 and County Road 48 intersect has been repaired and is currently running at a limited capacity.

Residents of Bushnell and the surrounding area in Kimball county had been rocked out of their sleep the morning of May 4 by a loud boom that caused them to call their neighbors to see if a house had exploded, according to statements previously made by Kimball County Highway Superintendent Dave Hottell.

Though previously reported as an “explosion”, George Rider, attorney for the owner of the TallGrass Energy Partners of Lakewood, Colorado which is in charge of that pipeline, says that he would not classify the burst as an explosion.

“There was a bursting in the pipe. There may have been a loud report. That would have been followed by the sound of gas escaping. To me, it’s not an explosion when there’s no combustion,” Rider said.

Since the burst in the pipeline, the section that was destroyed has been replaced and an investigation into the cause of the rupture has been undertaken by both TallGrass Energy Partners and the Pipeline and Hazard Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

“We’re subject to very stringent federal regulation. We work with PHMSA who is the pipeline regulator on safety matters, and that portion of the pipe was cut out and replaced and put back into service on May 10. It’s currently operating at a reduced pressure until the cause of the rupture is determined. Before it will go back to full pressure, we will have to get the approval of PHMSA for that activity,” Rider said.

The company had learned of the rupture through their control center in Lakewood, Colorado which monitors the pressure in their pipes across the country and responded to the event approximately at the same time as Bushnell Fire Department were receiving calls about the burst from local residents.

“They were able to tell on screens that they have that there had been a pressure drop at this point where the burst occurred. We have field offices in Western Nebraska, and we had dispatched people to go and check on that and shut off the valves so that no further gas would escape,” Rider said.

The portion of the line that ruptured is part of a segment called the “Pony Express Line” by the company that runs from Wyoming across the corner of Nebraska and through Kansas all the way to Kansas City, according to Rider. When asked if there was any potential public safety issues with the line or a chance of a repeat event along the line, Rider cited a long history of safety in the line.


“This line was originally an oil line, and it was converted to natural gas service in the mid 90’s. We have not had a rupture on that line since it was placed into natural gas service. This is not a repetitive or epidemic problem. It is very much an isolated event,” Rider said.

However, Rider was unsure whether or not the part of the line had been repaired or replaced since it had first been installed in the 1950’s.

“That line has been in service for some time. What you do have with older pipeline systems is that segments of it are replaced from time to time. I don’t know the answer on this particular pipe when it was last repaired or replaced,” Rider said.

Though Rider does not classify the event that occurred on May 4 as an explosive event, Kimball County Zoning Administrator Sheila Newell’s report on the incident would beg to differ. According to Newell’s report, the burst in the pipe caused enough force to leave behind a 400 foot long crater.

Newell’s report also contradicts Rider’s statements on the company’s response time.

“Tallgrass was not aware of this ‘event’ immediately as the Sheriff’s office contacted them 30 minutes later, and they were told that someone else just contacted them and they have a service tech on the way. Over two hours later, the natural gas was finally shut off at approximately 4:30 a.m.,” Newell’s report reads.

Newell reported her findings to the Board of County Commissioners at their meeting the morning of May 21, at which time greater light was shed on the interactions between county officials and representatives for TallGrass Energy Partners.

“I sent them a letter requesting a map of where the pipeline is so it would help our fire departments, road departments, and sheriff departments to respond in a more efficient manner if this happens again, and this is what we got,” Newell said holding up a map without any distinct marks on it. “It took me a while to figure out. There is no legal description, and the north is crooked,” Newell said.

However, Newell did offer up a description of the trajectory of the pipeline across Kimball county as best as she could based off of the information given to her.

“This line goes underneath Highway 30, the interstate, Highway 71, and it’s within a couple miles west of the airport. We have no idea where it goes in the county as far as how close it is to a house,” Newell said.

According to Newell and a letter county officials received from TallGrass Energy Partners, Nebraska agencies have no jurisdiction over the pipeline. However, they are able to make comments to the company.

“The ‘Pony Express Pipeline’ is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) generally and by the Pipeline and Hazard Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) as to safety matters,” the letter from TallGrass reads. “But we are happy to accommodate the County’s requests for informational purposes.”

This jurisdictional issue became apparent the night the pipe burst open when, according to attorney Robert Breener, a representative of the Kimball County Sherrif’s office was stopped from entering the area to investigate.

“Sergeant [Brandon] Loy tried to get to the scene, and he was stopped. They didn’t want our people on the scene. That bothers me,” said Brenner.

In the end, due to lack of jurisdiction and under the advisement of Brenner, the Board of County Commissioners approved a motion to send a letter listing their concerns to TallGrass Energy Partners as it is all that is within their power to do.

 

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