Background of NPS3

Images of multiple residences set ablaze during a gas distribution system incident in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts in 2019. Photos and story by Nina Flores and jliss1979 via CNN.

“At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, 1937, with just minutes left in the school day and more
than 500 students and teachers inside the building, a natural gas explosion
leveled most of an
East Texas school. Hundreds died at New London High School in Rusk County after odorless natural gas leaked into the basement and ignited. The
force of the explosion was felt even four miles away. Parents, many of them
roughnecks from the
oilfield, rushed to the school. Despite immediate rescue efforts, 298 died, most from grades 5 to 11 (dozens more later died of injuries).[1]. 

Because of the New London Texas School tragedy, Texas passed laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a rotten-egg smelling chemical, mercaptan, to give the public early warning of gas leaks. Other states soon followed in requiring mercaptan in natural gas pipelines.  On August 19, 1970, over 30 years after the New London, Texas tragedy, the Department of Transportation/PHMSA regulation 49 CFR 192.625 was codified requiring that all natural gas distribution lines and gas transmission lines in certain populated areas be odorized in order to allow a person with a normal sense of smell to readily detect leaking natural gas.  Why did this life-saving requirement take so long to implement on a national scale?

According to PHMSA’s summary of 2014 pipeline gas “incident” and hazardous liquid “accident” data [2], there were 19 fatalities, 96 injuries, and over $293 million (in 1984 dollars) in property damages as a direct result of 308 gas and hazardous liquids pipeline separate incidents and accidents. Accounting for inflation from 1984 to 2014 (2.82%), property damages in 2014 amounted to over $674 million as a result of close to one pipeline disaster a day.  While in 2014 not all of these significant events resulted in death or injury, this accident rate should be alarming.  

As in the case of the New London, Texas disaster in 1937, the consequences of oil and gas pipeline disasters over the past 15 years have at times become a part of state and national calls for public discourse from PHMSA and the pipeline operators after pipeline disasters have occurred. In recent memory we have seen such public calls for greater pipeline safety after three died in a gas pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, after eight died in a gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California in 2010, after five died in a gas pipeline explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011, after 1,100,000 US gallons of heavy crude oil/bitumen leaked into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and after 500,000 US gallons of heavy crude oil/bitumen leaked in a residential neighborhood of Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013.  Unfortunately in most of these cases the public outcry is short-lived and news of the incident fades from the headlines after a week or two. In most cases the pipeline is repaired and operational faults corrected, lawsuits are settled, fines are levied, and policies and regulations that might better protect human life and property are contemplated, sometimes proposed in draft legislation, but, never leave a Congressional staffer’s desk. Until the next disaster.

While these local tragedies increasingly find their way into the wider public consciousness through national news and social media reports, they are soon forgotten by those outside the immediately impacted area. Local emergency responders in all of these disasters do what they can with the resources they have; however, the fact remains that in all cases one or more deficiencies related to pipeline maintenance or emergency response resources and communications, have been found, and in some cases proved more costly, environmentally damaging, and threatening to the public’s health had the maintenance, resources and knowledge been in place prior to the emergency.  Such deficiencies have proven deadly. The burden of those deaths is still tangible in the communities where these disasters have occurred.  No amount of funding to families or improved emergency preparedness and regulations after the fact brings back children, parents, companion animals, loved ones, family heirlooms, or the ability to feel safe in one’s own home. In fact, the profound losses and changes that some pipeline survivors are forced to live with post-disaster means they may suffer from long-term psychological trauma, as well as financial, and physical effects that are not addressed by the existing network of disaster support services.

[1] Excerpt from “New London Texas School Explosion, March 18, 1937”,, Retrieved 4-17-2015.

[2] Since March 2004, PHMSA defines an “incident” on a gas pipeline as
meeting any of the following conditions, excluding all Fire First incidents:
(1) An event that involves a release of gas from a pipeline, or of liquefied
natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, refrigerant gas, or gas from an LNG
facility, and that results in one or more of the following consequences: (i) A
death, or personal injury necessitating in-patient hospitalization; (ii)
Estimated property damage of $50,000 or more (in 1984 dollars), including loss
to the operator and others, or both, but excluding cost of gas lost; (iii)
Unintentional estimated gas loss of three million cubic feet or more; (2) An
event that results in an emergency shutdown of an LNG facility. Activation of
an emergency shutdown system for reasons other than an actual emergency does
not constitute an incident. (3) An event that is significant in the judgment of
the operator, even though it did not meet the criteria of paragraphs (1) or (2)
of this definition. (49 CFR 191.3) And an “accident” on a hazardous
liquid or carbon dioxide pipeline as meeting any of the following conditions:
(a) Explosion or fire not intentionally set by the operator. (b) Release of 5
gallons (19 liters) or more of hazardous liquid or carbon dioxide, except that
no report is required for a release of less than 5 barrels (0.8 cubic meters)
resulting from a pipeline maintenance activity if the release is: (1) Not
otherwise reportable under this section; (2) Not one described in
§195.52(a)(4); (3) Confined to company property or pipeline right-of-way; and
(4) Cleaned up promptly; (c) Death of any person; (d) Personal injury
necessitating hospitalization; (e) Estimated property damage, including cost of
clean-up and recovery, value of lost product, and damage to the property of the
operator or others, or both, exceeding $50,000 (in 1984 dollars). (49 CFR