A Pennsylvania utility executive said at a congressional hearing Monday that it's possible a leak in a natural gas pipeline developed after an inspection a day before an explosion that killed five people in Allentown last month.
At a hearing on pipeline safety in King of Prussia, outside Philadelphia, UGI CEO John Walsh told a panel of congressional members that the investigation into the Feb. 9 explosion will take six to eight more weeks before a final determination on the circumstances surrounding the blast.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who leads the House subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous material, held the hearing in the wake of the Allentown explosion, which killed a 4-month-old boy, an elderly couple and two others, as well as a January blast that killed a Philadelphia Gas Works employee.
The emerging natural gas industry in the Marcellus Shale formation in parts of Pennsylvania will only be making pipeline safety an even bigger issue in coming years, officials said at the hearing.
U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., said he was concerned about how closely officials were surveying for leaks in pipelines, considering that inspectors had conducted a survey of the Allentown pipeline the day before the explosion.
"How could they have missed the leak the day before?" Meehan asked.
"It is possible that the catastrophic leak could have developed after that survey was done," Walsh responded, adding that the utility was still investigating whether that was the case. He also said the utility was placing a priority on replacing as many lengths of cast-iron pipeline as possible.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, Philadelphia Gas Works CEO Craig White, state regulators and other officials also attended the hearing, in which officials pushed for better coordination of survey inspections and heightened efforts to replace thousands of miles of cast-iron pipelines that can be a century old.
Robert Powelson, chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said that the state needs more funding to conduct inspections, but that the agency is working hard to figure out just what happened in Allentown. Shuster, however, said officials may have to do more with less because it's unlikely in the current economic climate that federal funding will be increased.
"Our work is not done," Powelson said. "We pledge to you that we'll get to the bottom of what happened."
Investigators have said they suspect a piece of cracked pipe may be to blame for the explosion and fire, which burned for hours as crews worked to cut off the gas supply. Officials have also said the blast was not far from the site of a similar explosion in 1990.
Last month's explosion flattened a pair of row houses and set fire to a block of homes in an area where the underground gas main lacked shut-off valves.
Pawlowski said that the aging gas mains must be replaced and that automatic shut-off valves could have saved lives. "The story of our aging infrastructure is not new," he said.
In January, the gas main explosion in Philadelphia sent a 50-foot fireball into the sky, killing a utility worker, injuring six other people and forcing dozens of residents from their homes.
White told the panel that PGW was "deeply saddened" by the tragedy but stands by its safety record. The utility uses the latest leak-detection technology and does a leak survey on every call, he said. The utility responds to 98 percent of leaks within 60 minutes, he said, but is dealing with one of the oldest infrastructures in the country.
"The key for us is to manage that risk, to manage that system," White said.