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Sometimes, Shit Just Blows Up

Two Gas Explosions in a Week Raise Safety and Government Oversight Concerns 

Defective Gas Valve Installed in 70,000 South Jersey Homes – Already 3 Emergencies, Including Fire

Gas Company and BPU Slow To Replace and Warn Public

[Update below]

[Update: 3/14/15 – add the Seaside Heights explosion to the list – end update.]

Let me begin this post by stating very clearly that I know virtually nothing about the technical aspects of gas pipeline safety and that I have no intention of scaring anybody or opportunistically using disasters to advance an agenda (for context, see Point Pleasant explosion and Stafford explosion).

I post this information so that perhaps those that do have expertise or regulatory responsibility – or media – can investigate what, from a layman’s perspective, looks troubling. I really have no idea if this is a big deal or a trifle – or if the problem has been solved and risks are minimal.

I was recently given credible information about a gas safety issue – including a fire that caused major damage and a lawsuit – related to a defective gas valve that was installed in approximately 70,000 homes and business by the South Jersey Gas Co.

Based on my review of sworn testimony to BPU, is sure seems that neither BPU nor South Jersey Gas are in any hurry to properly diagnose the risks or replace the defective gas valves.

Testimony shows that the problem was discovered not by any SJG or BPU safety program, but by the random discovery of a gas leak that led to a fire with significant property damage.

After the problem was discovered, BPU dod not require SJG to conduct a rigorous safety analysis to determine the full extent and risks of the problem.

SJG initially did not fully investigate the problem and proposed and apparently received BPU approval to replace the defective values – which already have caused fires and explosions with extensive property damage – over an extended 15 year period!

I do not have final documents to be able to understand how this problem was resolved by the final BPU Order or what the current status is.

My source suggests that:

someone in the press should take on the info from Deptford and apply it to an overall analysis of what has happened since then, etc and whether any more valves have been more recently replaced, at what pace, bpu involvement, etc…

Here is what happened, per SJG testimony – I have fill document as a PDF and am unable to post a link but will provide upon request:

IX. Rockford Eclipse Valve Replacement Program 

It is necessary for South Jersey to remove and replace defectively designed riser valves that are installed at approximately 70,000 of the Company’s customers’ residences and businesses to ensure public safety and system reliability. The valves that need to be replaced were manufactured, distributed and sold to South Jersey and other utilities by a combination of the following companies: Rockford-Eclipse, Eclipse, Inc., Mueller Company, and Mueller Group Ltd. in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The valves were also installed at customer locations during that time frame. Based upon several failures associated with these valves, including one that led to significant property damage, and subsequent testing and analysis, South Jersey has determined that these riser valves (“Rockford Eclipse valves”) were defectively designed. To ensure public safety these Rockford Eclipse valves must be replaced.

At the time of this filing, South Jersey has experienced three failures of Rockford Eclipse valves at residential locations and without the proactive measures the Company took when the design defect was discovered, it is possible that more failures could have occurred. The first incident occurred in February 2005 when a Company employee responded to a leak call at a residence in Voorhees, NJ. In response to the leak, the employee attempted to shut off the flow  of gas to the residence by operating the Rockford Eclipse valve. In doing so, the Rockford Eclipse valve’s stem blew out causing a release of gas and subsequent fire. This caused extensive damage at the property. While this failure was the first time South Jersey experienced a problem with the Rockford Eclipse valve, two subsequent failures, testing on the valves and opinions contained in expert reports produced in litigation led South Jersey to conclude that these  valves must be identified and replaced so that this type of incident would not be repeated.

The second known failure occurred in July 2005 when a homeowner operated a Rockford Eclipse valve to perform maintenance inside his Deptford, NJ home. Similar to the first failure, when the Rockford Eclipse valve was operated, the stem blew out of the valve. Fortunately though, this failure did not lead to any personal injury or damage to the homeowner’s property. In response to the failure, South Jersey shut off gas service to the home and replaced the valve.

 In March 2008, a contractor at a third residence in Berlin, NJ operated a Rockford Eclipse valve, again causing the valve stem to blow out of the valve. South Jersey responded, shut off gas service to the home and replaced the valve. Again, fortunately, there was no property damage or personal injury related to this valve failure. At this point, South Jersey still  had approximately 70,000 Rockford Eclipse valves installed in its service territory.

These three failures represented the only known problems that the Company experienced with the Rockford Eclipse valves.

As a result of the extensive damage purportedly caused by the first failure of the Rockford Eclipse valve, litigation was commenced by the property owner and others against  South Jersey and the manufacturers of the Rockford Eclipse valve in Superior Court of New Jersey – Law Division, Camden County. This matter was captioned McKee Duncan, et als. v. South Jersey Gas Company, et als. and docketed as CAM-L-686-07 (“Duncan litigation”). During the course of the Duncan litigation, specifically in 2008, South Jersey learned for the first time that the failure of the Rockford Eclipse valve was caused by a flaw in the design of the valve. To our knowledge, the valves had caused no problems during the first twenty years or so of their lives following installation. This design defect was revealed in expert reports submit in the Duncan litigation. This design defect caused the Rockford Eclipse valve to corrode internally and seize up, which prevented proper operation. In addition to the internal corrosion problem, the Rockford Eclipse valve does not have a nut opposite the valve plug which would allow a service technician to loosen the valve if it seizes.

Although the valves present no safety hazard in their current (dormant) state, they become problematic when used for their intended purpose, which is to stop the flow of gas.

Precautionary actions have been and continue to be taken by South Jersey to mitigate future damage from valves malfunctioning. We believe the problem is limited to Rockford Eclipse  valves and does not extend to valves manufactured by companies other than Rockford-Eclipse, Eclipse, Inc. Mueller Group, Ltd. and Mueller Company.

In response to this situation, South Jersey has conducted a survey to identify the location of Rockford Eclipse valves throughout its service territory. This survey identified 69,167  locations as having a Rockford Eclipse valve on the service riser. Yellow plastic safety/warning  caps stating “Warning – Tampering subject to prosecution” were then purchased and installed on each identified Rockford Eclipse valve to deter unauthorized personnel from operating the  Rockford Eclipse valve.

Once tagged, South Jersey commenced its plan to replace all of the defective valves.

Pursuant to this plan, each Rockford Eclipse valve in the South Jersey distribution system will be inspected by no later than April 30, 2011 to determine evidence of atmospheric corrosion. Valves which are graded as poor in this survey will receive the highest priority in the replacement plan. Following completion of the survey, a plan for prioritizing and replacing all Rockford Eclipse valves will be developed and provided to the Board by no later than July 31, 2011.

Here are excerpts of the sworn BPU testimony to get the ball rolling –  very troubling flaws revealed (link)

Q: Does McFadden Consulting have any comments or recommendations concerning the Company’s Rockford Eclipse Valve Replacement Program?

In response to data requests requesting all information related to the RE valve situation, SJG did not provide any documentation indicating that it conducted a formal analysis to determine if its proposed program was a prudent course of action. For example, apparently no analysis was performed to determine:

  • The probability of future incidents verses the expenditure involved in making a wholesale replacement of the valves
  • The proper timeframe (i.e.the proposed program’s 15 years to complete) for any such replacement program

Because the Company did not conduct any such analyses, McFadden Consulting is not able to determine if the proposed program is reasonable or prudent. In other words, McFadden Consulting is unable to either take issue with the Company’s proposed Rockford Eclipse gas service riser valve replacement program or to endorse the program as being adequate.

SJG has indicated that it will formalize its plan for prioritizing and replacing all RE valves and provide such plan to the Board of Public Utilities no later than July 31, 2011.42 McFadden Consulting recommends the Board require the Company to prepare a formal analysis as described above as a part of any such plan submission

[Update:  Here is the most recent BPU document I was just provided, after this post was written. I am reading it now. ** The testimony seems to focus exclusively on costs not safety, but I found this interesting – safety plan is secret:

Q – How was the 15-year time frame chosen?

A – The 15-year time frame is in conjunction with the Plan submitted by South   Jersey to the BPU Bureau of Pipeline Safety, entitled “Summary of Actions to Date and Path Forward”, dated May 20, 2009. It was submitted on a confidential basis and will be provided to the parties to this proceeding when appropriate safeguards are in place. ~~~ end update ]

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