West Virginia pipeline explosion raises controversy over automatic shut-off valves

A pipeline explosion destroyed four homes and transformed an 800-foot stretch of Interstate 77 in West Virginia into a blazing inferno last week. It took Columbia Gas Transmission workers roughly an hour to turn off the gas by manual shut-off valves, prompting federal investigators to launch an investigation.

According to the Ithaca Journal, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended the use of automatic or remote valves that can turn off the gas promptly in the event of an explosion, allowing emergency responders quicker access to the scene.

The automatic valves use a series of sensors that gauge changes in pressure, temperature and more, and then the line can be remotely shut down if needed. The pushback regarding this technology has been the cost, though advocates say the cost of not doing so is far greater.

"Safety costs money, and it can either cost money up front, or it can cost innocent lives and untold tragedy to others who are in the proximity of these pipelines when they explode," Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB from 1994 to January 2001, told the news source. “The price is set. It's just do we pay it [upfront] now or pay it later?"

Thanks to innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals and sensor housing assembly, these valves can be built and installed for far less than they used to cost. And, as many regulators have pointed out, the property and equipment damages alone that results from an explosion can total millions of dollars, not to mention the threat of injury or death and subsequent lawsuits.

Whatever the NTSB investigation uncovers, all can agree that better preparing ourselves for dealing with such incidents is in everyone's best interests.

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