Explosion report raises more questions

A federal report on the massive natural gas pipeline explosion near Charleston more than a year ago reaches the obvious conclusion – that the blast was a result of unpardonable neglect. But the National Transportation Safety Board has not answered the real question: What is being done to avoid similar disasters in the future?

Natural gas pipelines, some of them enormous, have crisscrossed the Mountain State for generations. The current gas drilling boom means even more will be needed.

The December 2012 explosion at Sissonville made national headlines. It was so severe a section of Interstate 77 pavement melted and had to be replaced. Three homes also were destroyed. Only by the grace of God were there no serious injuries.

Because major interstate pipelines are regulated by the federal government, the NTSB investigated the Sissonville explosion. This week the agency released its final report.

Corrosion of the pipeline itself led to the leak that resulted in the blast, NTSB officials concluded. Because the line had not been inspected after 1988, the problem was not discovered and corrected.

That is old news, of course. More important is that NTSB’s note that it has made pipeline safety recommendations to Columbia Gas Transmission Corp., which owns the line, and the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Companies handling hazardous materials, whether gas or chemicals that could contaminate water supplies, have an obligation to store and transport them safely.

Government agencies are supposed to ensure those firms do not take risks that endanger the public.

Columbia officials already have said they intend to do a better job of ensuring pipelines are safe. But that still leaves the question of what government will do to police Columbia and other pipeline operators.

One obvious step would be more federal inspections of pipelines. Another might be new requirements for inspection and maintenance by operators.

The long-delayed NTSB report, then, raised more questions – about government pipeline safety programs – than it answered.