The US has 2 million miles of gas lines. It’s one of the most rigorous fuel/energy delivery systems in the world, a feat of engineering and maintenance that employs 26,000+ people nationwide. Infrastructure like ours should be a point of pride, something we point to as evidence that great engineering feats are simply part of American life now.
On August 1, 2018, a gas line owned and maintained by Navitas Midstream, LLC exploded, causing a fire that burned to a minimum temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Nine inches above this line was another gas line owned and maintained by El Paso Natural Gas Company (EPNG). For 85 minutes, this line was cooked at temperatures conservatively estimated to be above 2,000 degrees. Firefighters and personnel from both EPNG and Navitas showed up at the scene to stop the fire, and an EPNG employee shut off the gas to that area of the line.
Then, without warning, a second pipeline explosion ripped through the EPNG line, killing a Navitas employee and grievously injuring six firefighters, Navitas employees, and EPNG personnel. It left one worker with burns covering 50% of his body—a life-changing injury that will cause him pain for the rest of his life. In 2020, a forensic engineering team investigated the explosion to determine what happened.
This is what they found.
300 Leaks in 3 Years
In 2015, Navitas bought a 55-year-old system of Spraberry lines. These lines were created via a mode of production that rolls out a sheet of metal into a curve until it forms a cylinder, then welding the two ends together to form a pipe. Called Electronic Resistance Welding (ERW), this process leaves pipes susceptible to Selective Seam Corrosion, or the corrosion of the seam. Navitas must have known the state of the Spraberry lines after they bought them; between 2015 and 2018, there were 300 leak incidents reported.
The first explosion (which took place around 11 am) led to a continuously burning fire even after Navitas personnel shut off gas to the site. The report says this indicates two things: improper shutoff procedure or a corroded pipe. Further investigation revealed that the corroded Navitas pipe likely led to a gas release, allowing gas to mix with oxygen. These are two of the three conditions necessary for an explosion. A still-unknown ignition source provided the third condition, bursting open the pipe. The badly corroded Navitas pipe meant that the fire had a steady supply of fuel to burn for a long time, even after employees shut in the pipe.
The Second Explosion
The initial explosion exposed the EPNG line to the air as a fire burned beneath it. Photos of the fire showed that the flames were at least 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, but natural gas can burn as hot as 3,000+ degrees, which is far beyond the tolerances of the EPNG lines. Personnel from EPNG arranged for the gas flow to be shut off for safety. One of the personnel showed up at the site of the fire and immediately noticed that the Navitas line had ruptured.
Three minutes later, a second explosion left him with grievous burn injuries.
After nearly an hour and a half of extreme heat, the EPNG line had ruptured. Gas escaped from the pipe, mixed with oxygen from the air, and was immediately ignited by the fire burning nine inches below. It was the exact outcome that EPNG and firefighters were hoping to prevent.
Astonishingly, some critics blamed the second explosion on the personnel who had shut off the gas. How could shutting off the gas create an explosion? Critics claimed that the flow of gas, which cools the inside of the pipe, would have prevented the fire from rupturing the pipe. However, the report presents multiple scenarios that thoroughly debunk that claim. Even under ideal conditions—minimum fire heat, the maximum cooling effect of flowing gas—there was no way that the EPNG personnel could have prevented the explosion. In other words, the blame lies squarely with Navitas.
Could Navitas Have Prevented the Explosion?
In a word: yes.
The report finds that it’s likely the Spraberry lines Navitas bought were in a state of severe degradation years prior to the explosion. Even if Navitas had no idea what they were buying in 2015—which is unlikely—they would have known in the intervening years how poorly maintained their lines were. As the company that owned and profited from these lines, it was its responsibility to keep them in a safe, operable condition. They failed to do this.
To drive home their point, the report shares pictures of other Navitas lines in the area. On similarly corroded lines owned by Navitas, the effect of selective seam corrosion is visible. On 62-year-old lines, corrosion must be addressed quickly or else seams will degrade further. Gas leaks, whether small or big, run the risk of becoming mixed with oxygen, forming a ticking time bomb. All such a mixture requires is an ignition source.
“Had the Navitas pipeline been properly maintained to contain the natural gas flowing within it,” the report’s authors write, “the fuel would have been unable to mix with oxygen and reach an ignition source, thereby preventing both the initial and secondary explosion.”
The factors involved in the Navitas pipeline explosion stretch backward in time by nearly six decades. Other factors were created an hour before the fateful second explosion. But in both cases, the pipe explosion’s root cause is the same: the prioritization of profit over the lives of pipeline workers. Pipe maintenance cannot be ignored; people’s lives are on the line. Fuel is too volatile and potentially dangerous to entrust people’s safety to a degrading system of lines simply because fixing them would be too ‘expensive.’
We hope more in-depth investigations of these incidents are made public. It’s vital that everyone know the real causes behind these seemingly-random tragedies.