WHEELING - Hundreds or even thousands of miles of pipelines and gathering lines are needed to transport natural gas from Ohio and West Virginia drilling sites to processing plants. Just who regulates and ensures the safety of the pipeline systems is unclear, however.
"These pipelines are all over the place. And there is very little oversight," said Tim Greene, owner of Land and Mineral Management of Appalachia, who is also a former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection oil and gas inspector.
The federal government knows virtually nothing about these pipelines, and government auditors last week warned that agencies need to step up oversight to ensure the pipelines are running safely.
The Government Accountability Office said in its report that most of the pipelines are not regulated by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which means they are not regularly inspected for leaks or corrosion.
Nationwide, about 240,000 miles of gathering pipelines transport natural gas to processing facilities and larger pipelines in top energy-producing states. Many of these pipelines course through densely populated areas, including neighborhoods in Fort Worth, Texas. Gathering lines that run in the rural northeastern corner of Pennsylvania receive no federal oversight if there are fewer than 10 homes within 220 yards of the pipeline, the government's report said.
"Who would ever think that they could run something like this next to your home and it wouldn't have any regulations attached to it?" asked Wyoming County, Pa., resident Emily Krafjack.
"It really is something to consider when looking at a pipeline," added Greene. "A lot of these are buried. Just because a company may know where they are now doesn't mean they won't lose track of them at some point."
Only about 24,000 miles of the 240,000 nationwide are regulated, the GAO said.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration delegates some enforcement of its rules to state-level pipeline safety authorities, which the Government Accountability Office surveyed to understand the array of risks associated with gathering lines.
Those state-level agencies told auditors that construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown locations and limited or no information on current pipeline integrity all posed safety risks for federally unregulated gathering pipelines.
"The (Public Service Commission of West Virginia) has some rules and regulations for this, but I doubt they know where all the lines are," Greene said.
Commission spokeswoman Susan Small directed requests for comment to the organization's website, which notes that West Virginia "regulates and inspects the interstate and intrastate gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators." This is accomplished through an agreement with the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, the website states.
Kathy Cosco, West Virginia DEP spokeswoman, said the department's Office of Oil and Gas "has some pipeline regulations, mainly addressing burial."
"There is no 'permit' from the Office of Oil and Gas for pipeline construction," she said.
In the Buckeye State, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Linda Oros said the agency needs to give approval for any pipeline crossing wetlands or streams.
"They usually try to direct their pipelines around these," Oros said of the gas companies and the water areas.
John Williams, director of service monitoring and enforcement for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said the agency has jurisdiction over most gathering lines leading away from drilling sites.
And accidents do happen with natural gas pipelines. Just last year, a Tennessee Gas Pipeline ruptured in Columbiana County, Ohio, setting off a massive explosion that could be seen for miles.
"Our pipeline safety inspectors are out every day to check on these to make sure they are safe," Williams said.