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Flames rise at the site of an explosion of the Colonial Pipeline in Shelby County, Alabama. (Photo credit WBMA)

America's oil and gas pipelines are getting really old. Here's why that's bad.


America's oil and gas pipelines are getting really old. Here's why that's bad.

WATCH  | America's massive network of oil and gas pipelines is getting older, making incidents like this week's deadly pipeline explosion in Alabama more common. 

Colonial Pipeline incidents

On Monday, a section of the Colonial Pipeline in Shelby County exploded, killing one and injuring five others. 

Less than two months ago, a major leak that spilled over 250,000 gallons of gasoline was discovered on the same pipeline. 

Both incidents happened on a section of the pipeline that is over 50 years old. And as the rest of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure ages, similar disasters could become more frequent. 

America's pipelines are getting old

About 45 percent of crude oil pipelines in the United States are over a half-century old, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). 

Pipelines laid in the 1920s -- and some even earlier -- are still being used today. 

I know I'm starting to fail, too -- so it kind of makes you wonder about pipelines.
Carl Weimer

"The pipelines like the ones that have recently failed in Alabama, the average age is somewhere between 50 to 60 years old, which is about my age. And I know I'm starting to fail, too -- so it kind of makes you wonder about pipelines," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent nonprofit promoting pipeline safety.  

Pipeline incidents becoming more frequent

Last year, there were 327 significant pipeline incidents in the United States. A significant incident is defined as one involving fatalities or injuries, fire or explosions, the loss of at least 5 barrels of fuel or costing over $50,000 in damage. 

So far in 2016, there have been 226 significant pipeline incidents resulting in 11 fatalities, 65 injuries and costing over $187 million, according to data from PHMSA. 

Gas prices impacted

Pipeline incidents like the Colonial Pipeline explosion can wreak havoc at the gas pumps, too. The Alabama explosion forced pipeline operators to shut down part of the 5,500-mile system. 

"Normally it's pretty easy to repair and get the pipeline back in service again. You know, they usually can do it within a week or ten days... But, a week or ten days dependent on how much is stored in different places certainly can drive the price of gas up," Weimer said. 

PHMSA falling behind on safety 

Watchdogs and lawmakers have criticized PHMSA for falling behind on safety improvements. Earlier this month, the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General blasted PHMSA for poor coordination which led to delays in implementing new safety measures. 

The report said PHMSA has missed "about 75 percent of its mandated deadlines."


This summer, President Obama signed the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act. 

The bipartisan legislation lays out new safety mandates for PHMSA, including replacing thousands of miles of wrought and cast iron pipeline, and reauthorizes spending on the agency's oil and gas pipeline programs through 2019. 

There are 19 states that have eliminated cast and wrought iron pipelines. 

PHMSA working to improve 

Damon Hill, a spokesman for PHMSA, told Circa the agency places a high priority on pushing pipeline operators to "address the challenges to repairing, rehabilitating, and replacing high-risk pipeline infrastructure."

He added that the agency is issuing new safety regulations to "strengthen the management of integrity of pipelines whose failure would affect areas of high consequence."

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