Earth scarred by the massive explosion that rocked this rural Schoharie County town 20 years ago has since healed and buildings reduced to smoldering rubble have long since vanished.
But people who recall the sudden death of two neighbors and the devastation caused when a pipeline burst say they don’t expect to ever forget the fateful morning of March 13, 1990.
The pipe carrying liquid propane, running north of state Route 30 near West Kill Road in North Blenheim, ruptured and sent a cloud of flammable gas drifting downhill.
The cloud exploded about 7:30 a.m. when it got to the intersection of Route 30 and West Kill Road, killing Blenheim resident and firefighter Robert Hitchcock, 53, and Central Bridge resident Richard Smith, 43. The explosion destroyed 14 homes and injured five people.
New gear added to the pipeline’s infrastructure and town buildings built after the blast — dedicated in honor of Hitchcock — stand as reminders of the devastation today.
And in the 20 years since, more stringent regulations governing pipelines and an added emphasis on safety have accompanied a 10 percent reduction in serious accidents, a government spokesman said.
North Blenheim resident Peter Giesin recalls being in the cellar of his West Kill Road farmhouse when his daughter called to him asking what was going on in the field outside their home.
“I looked out, there’s this white plume. At the time, I thought it was smoke. I thought an airliner had crashed or something,” Giesin said.
The white cloud was a plume of gassified propane that leaked out of the Texas Eastern Products Co.’s underground pipeline — a pipeline run underground in the 1960s despite resident opposition that was ultimately overpowered by eminent domain.
“I realized it was the pipeline blowing this plume of gas across the field which, naturally, was going downhill away from us. Then, within less than five minutes, a ball of fire came back over the hill from downtown where it ignited,” Giesin said.
For more photos from the 1990 explosion, click HERE.
“The village looked like a war scene. It was just destroyed,” said Blenheim resident Gail Shaffer, who was working as secretary of state in Albany and rushed to the scene.
“When we got to the village, it was all charred remains of buildings. There were 12 or 15 different fire companies with their hoses still on. It was organized chaos at that point,” Shaffer said. “I will never forget.”
Today, offshore and onshore gas transmission lines carrying hazardous liquid such as propane stretch for more than 2.5 million miles in all 50 states, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.
New York state accounts for a total of 53,275 miles of underground pipelines.
Following the 1990 disaster in North Blenheim, engineers hired by the government determined that several months before the accident, workers from the pipeline company raised the pipe to insert a rubber washer between it and a casing pipe around it. The work was in response to a short circuit detected in the system that uses a small electrical charge to keep the pipe from corroding.
Engineers at the time said the crew filled the pipeline hole back in but the dirt might have been frozen. Once thawed, it allowed the pipe to settle and a weak point in the pipe — a manufacturing defect — broke in half.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation that followed criticized the fact that the pipeline’s operators were unable to detect a drop in pressure when the pipe leaked; the nearest monitoring location was in Gilbertsville, Otsego County, about 15 miles west of Oneonta and roughly 68 miles from North Blenheim. Afterward, the pipeline company installed remote terminal units to monitor the pressure at pump stations and receiving stations.
The same 4,200-mile-long pipeline, which stretches from Texas to Selkirk, Albany County, sprang a leak in January of 2004. An explosion that followed destroyed one home in Delaware County but no injuries were suffered.
Engineers determined the 2004 pipeline leak was caused by frost heave separating a valve from the pipe. Roughly 5,000 gallons of propane in the pipe burned for three days after the blast.
In the 20 years since the blast in North Blenheim, the federal Department of Transportation has created the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, expanding the department’s inspection and enforcement abilities and doubling the number of inspectors and accident investigators, said Damon Hill, a spokesman for the federal DOT.
“Since then, we’ve had a number of regulations introduced that includes regulations for [pipe] integrity management programs, operator qualifications, control room management and quite a few other things to help make pipelines a lot safer,” Hill said.
Among the new standards is a requirement that pipelines be capable of undergoing an internal inspection, he said.
The “call before you dig” number was developed after the Schoharie County explosion, Hill said, to help stem third-party damage to pipelines he said are responsible for the bulk of pipeline failures today.
The pipeline changed hands in terms of ownership, with TEPPCO merging with Enterprise Products Partners LP in October of 2009, Enterprise spokesman Rick Rainey said.
In terms of safety, technology has advanced markedly in the past two decades, Rainey said.
For one, the advent of the pipeline inspection gauge, called “smart PIG” in the industry, allows technicians to learn a great deal about the pipeline’s condition.
“It’s an electronic device pushed through the pipeline, equipped with very sensitive electronic gathering equipment able to test for things like hairline cracks, whether or not the pipeline has become misshapen, the thickness of the walls. It’s very precise, very sensitive information,” he said.
In the case of the pipeline that leaked in North Blenheim, he said, the PIG “would have been able to pick up the fact that when the pipe was put back in the ground that it had been damaged during the installation process.”
Pipeline managers, unlike 20 years ago, have much more control and information. There are remote operated valves they can use to shut down pressure in the lines. Before, a field technician would have to go to the pipeline and manually turn a valve.
“It allows them to react quicker and speeds up response time to mitigate effects of an incident should it happen,” Rainey said.
Rainey said pipeline data is monitored on a 24-hour basis, with information fed back to a control center via satellite.
“They keep an eye on pressure, temperature, flow rates and basically get an idea of the conditions of the pipeline at any given moment,” he said.
A newer law, called the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act, also places stricter controls over pipeline safety and establishes set times, usually between five and seven years, at which pipelines have to be inspected.
“Even though accidents do happen, pipelines are by far the safest way to transport natural gas or liquids consumers need,” Rainey said.
According to data on the Web site of the PHMSA, there were 277 “significant incidents” involving pipelines nationwide in 1989, another 253 incidents in 1990 and 265 in 2008.
Altogether, records from 1989 to 2008 show there have been a total of 5,626 incidents that killed 396 people, injured another 1,650 and caused roughly $4.13 billion in property damage over the 20-year period, according to the PHMSA.
Shaffer said it’s hard to believe the explosion took place 20 years ago. “Certainly, the perfect storm of bad things occurred on that day for us 20 years ago. It was just a terrible tragedy of tremendous proportions for a little town,” she said.
Giesin said, “We remember it but life goes on.” His property hosts one of the pipeline’s new mechanisms.
“Time heals. There’s also that possibility of a re-do of it somewhere along the lines, but I guess that’s kind of what we’ve got to put up with for the country that we live in,” he said. “We move gas that way and accidents will happen.”