By ALEX NUSSBAUM
A probe into safety practices at pipeline operator Williams
Cos. is being expanded after a natural gas plant fire led to
the evacuation of a town in Wyoming last month, the
companys third accident in a year.
While its unclear if there are any broader issues, the
string of incidents is unusual, said Dan Tillema,
a lead investigator at the US Chemical Safety Board, in an
interview yesterday. With a strong corporate oversight
of process safety, it would be very unlikely to have three
incidents like this in a 12-month period.
Williams, operator of more than 26,000 miles (42,000
kilometers) of oil and gas pipelines, announced its own
safety review this month, after an April 23 fire at a natural
gas plant forced the evacuation of nearby Opal, Wyoming. That
followed a March 31 explosion at a liquefied gas storage site
in Plymouth, Washington, and a June 2013 blast at a Louisiana
chemical plant that killed two workers and left 80 injured.
The safety board was already investigating the explosion in
Geismar, Louisiana. After the more recent incidents,
were going to look at whether or not theres
a higher-level corporate issue, Tillema said.
The Washington, DC-based board has no power to impose
penalties and instead makes recommendations to companies and
industries to avoid future problems.
In December, the US Occupational Safety and Health
Administration cited Williams for six safety violations at
the Geismar plant and proposed a $99,000 fine.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company is still in discussions
with the agency, a spokesman, Tom Droege, said in an e-mail.
Williams is cooperating with the safety board and other
oversight agencies, he said.
The company and its Williams Partners affiliate, which owns
the Geismar plant, will hire outside experts to provide an
independent look at their practices as part of the internal
probe, CEO Alan Armstrong said in a May 13 interview in New
York. The review will look at on-the-ground performance,
resources provided for safety and maintenance
culture established across Williams, Armstrong
Its been a pretty painful year, frankly, to have
a number of incidents occur like this, he said.
And I would just tell you we are going to be very, very
diligent about making sure we understand if there are any
common, root causes.
Williams overall has a very good safety record,
Armstrong said, citing federal pipeline safety statistics.
Capital spending on maintenance
by Williams Partners
has declined in recent years even as its pipeline network
expanded, according to company filings. Armstrong, who is
also CEO at the partnership, said expenses have fallen
because upgrades were completed on the most vulnerable parts
of the system. Inspection rates havent decreased, he
Tillema, the safety board investigator, said Williams has
cooperated with the governments investigation.
They want to understand what happened as much as we