Lawsuit leaves large gas storage fields in Kansas unregulated

Lawsuit leaves large gas storage fields in Kansas unregulated by Dion Lefler, October 2, 2011, The Wichita Eagle
Knox says it’s unsettling to know that because of a federal court decision last year, neither the state nor federal governments are inspecting the gas field near his home, or others holding thousands of times the amount of gas that caused havoc in Hutchinson. “Any time you’ve got gas going, you need to have it inspected every now and then,” Knox said. “If we get a leak and it’s not detected or the pipe gets weak and nobody ever inspects it, we could have an explosion like Hutchinson.” Since the federal district court in Topeka struck down Kansas gas-safety laws last year, 11 underground storage sites with a capacity of more than 270 billion cubic feet of gas have gone uninspected for 18 months, according to state officials. The state can’t inspect them. The federal government has chosen not to. As a result, thousands of Kansans live on and around uninspected gas-storage fields that dwarf the system that caused the Hutchinson disaster. … In January 2001, gas leaked from an underground salt cavern at Yaggy and flowed seven miles underground to Hutchinson, where it popped up through abandoned brine wells and exploded. The first explosion destroyed about half a block of downtown businesses and shattered glass for blocks around, but no one was killed. A day later, gas found another path to the surface and exploded in a mobile home park in east Hutchinson, killing an elderly couple. It took more than a month for flares to burn off the estimated 143 million cubic feet of gas that escaped from storage. The downtown businesses were never rebuilt, the mobile home park was closed and the Yaggy field was shut down, although it owners are still slowly drawing down the gas under the supervision of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. … Federal and state laws on gas safety collided in 2009 when Colorado Interstate Gas sued the KCC to stop its inspections and regulations. Colorado Interstate Gas is a subsidiary of the El Paso Corp., the nation’s biggest gas pipeline firm. It operates the Boehm gas storage field in Morton County in southwest Kansas, which can hold 12.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas. “The lawsuit occurred only after many efforts by CIG to work out an informal arrangement with the KCC that would assist the commission in carrying out its program at our facilities under a comprehensive memorandum of understanding,” Wheatley wrote in response to questions from The Eagle. The statement said the company “respectfully disagreed with the KCC” on the constitutionality of Kansas gas safety laws and whether state government should have a formal role in regulating its storage field. While acknowledging that the Federal Natural Gas and Pipeline Safety acts put most interstate gas operations under federal authority, the state argued in court filings that Congress left room for the state’s “exercise of its historic police power to protect the public from danger.” The gas company argued in its filings that “the regulation of interstate commerce has never been an historic power held by any state.” Both sides fought over the meaning of a Department of Transportation advisory issued in response to the 1992 Brenham disaster. Part of the bulletin by the DOT’s Research and Special Programs Administration appeared to urge states to take action. The administration, “recognizing the value of underground hydrocarbon storage requirements tailored to a state’s particular circumstances, is encouraging state action and voluntary industry action as a way to assure underground storage safety instead of proposing additional federal regulations.” But later, the advisory urges gas storage companies to comply with industry standards and “appropriate state underground storage regulations to the extent feasible.” U.S. District Senior Judge Sam Crow ruled that “appropriate” and “feasible” meant Colorado Interstate Gas is free to ignore state regulations.

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