Typo derails probe of fatal LNG accident

By Mike Soraghan | 04/22/2024 06:37 AM EDT

Questions about the wording of a fire code have safety advocates calling for stricter and clearer rules on liquefied natural gas.

Photo collage of paper case report with a had writing in pen checked or chocked

Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth/POLITICO (source images via U.S Department of Transportation and iStock)

An apparent typographical error is holding up an investigation into a natural gas explosion last year that left a man dead in Washington state and led to calls for stricter regulation of liquefied natural gas.

An employee of a company providing the cryogenically condensed methane in tanker trucks was killed in the September incident near Toppenish, Washington, and a truck driver was injured. The driver’s truck rolled forward while it was still transferring its load, ripping hoses from the tank and spewing methane. That created a vapor cloud that ignited.

It’s not clear why the truck moved. It was supposed to be immobilized by “chocks” — wedges shoved under truck tires to keep trucks in place — but it wasn’t.


The most recent standard issued by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, for natural gas operations says truck tires must be “chocked” during such operations. But the 23-year-old standard embedded in federal safety regulations instead says the tires must be “checked.”

“Is it a typo or does it mean what it says?” Scott Rukke, director of the Pipeline Safety Division for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said in an interview. “It makes a huge difference.”

Rukke sought clarification from NFPA in December, but he hasn’t gotten an answer. Neither could E&E News. NFPA spokesperson Susan McKelvey declined to comment because of the active investigation.

So for now, Rukke said, he’s unsure whether he can charge any of those involved with a violation for failure to immobilize the truck. He’s heard it can take nearly two years to get an interpretation about a standard.

“We’re stopped in our tracks until we get the interpretation,” Rukke said.

To safety advocates, Rukke’s quandary is a sign that regulation of the small but dangerous mobile LNG business has fallen through the cracks. Mobile LNG operations are exempt from federal LNG safety laws so long as they comply with the NFPA standard — number 59A.

Mobile LNG is the same substance — methane supercooled to below minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, shrinking it to 1/600 of its volume at ambient temperatures — that is shipped abroad by supertankers from giant terminals on the Gulf Coast. That end of the business has been the subject of an intense national debate because of the Biden administration’s pause on new gas export terminals.

A burned out tanker is shown after a fire in Toppenish, Washington.
One worker was killed and another one injured in September when liquefied natural gas (LNG) leaked while being transferred from a tanker in Toppenish, Washington. | Job Wise/Sunnyside Sun

The mobile LNG operation in Washington state was set up to keep gas flowing to customers of Cascade Natural Gas in several small towns during a monthslong maintenance and upgrade project in the area.

That’s one of the most common reasons to use mobile LNG, according to Christina Sames, senior vice president of safety, operations, engineering and security at the American Gas Association. In an emailed statement, she said it can also be used when the system can’t meet exceptional demand, perhaps because of extreme cold.

For example, Sames said, “If maintenance was being done on the line supplying a critical facility like a hospital or a nursing home that cannot be without access to natural gas, mobile LNG could be deployed.”

It’s not clear how often such operations are performed every year. But mobile LNG is part of a global “small-scale LNG” market that’s forecast by a consultancy called SkyQuest to expand in value from about $1 billion in 2023 to $1.3 billion by 2031.

In the weeks after the accident, the country’s main advocacy group on safety for pipelines and other gas infrastructure, the Pipeline Safety Trust, called for stricter regulation of mobile LNG. In a news release, the group called the current rules “inadequate and more must be done to make them safer.”

Neutral party?

Washington state also suffered another one of the most catastrophic LNG incidents in the country.

In 2014, an LNG facility owned by a Williams Cos. subsidiary blew up, injuring five workers and causing $72 million in damage. The explosion also led to the evacuation of a 2-mile radius around the plant, including the entire town of Plymouth. A two-year investigation by the state and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) found that the blast stemmed from badly designed procedures to restart the system after routine maintenance.

Williams officials said at the time — according to the Yakima Herald-Republic — that they cooperated with the investigation and shared “lessons learned” with the industry.

Embedding standards from third-party organizations — often industry trade groups — is a common, if often criticized, part of federal regulation. Regulators can chose which group’s standards to incorporate into their rules and whether to adopt updated versions.

Supporters say the standards can get at the nuances of complicated and dangerous procedures better than a government regulation, by tapping the expertise of those who do such procedures. Critics, such as the Pipeline Safety Trust, have long complained that it gives large, powerful industries too much say over how they’re regulated.

“In this case, the standard setting organization is a relatively neutral party, but the working group was made up largely of industry,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Bellingham, Washington-based safety organization.

If PHMSA is going to use standards by third parties such as NFPA in its rules, he said, the agency should do a better job of keeping up with them.

“They certainly shouldn’t automatically adopt new editions, but they should when it will improve safety,” he said. He added that in the case of mobile LNG, “it appears that the newer editions have corrected a critical safety gap.”

The group is raising important questions about incorporating outside standards and exempting industrial activities from federal regulations, said Rick Kuprewicz, a chemical engineer who worked for years in the industry and now consults on safety issues and has worked closely at times with the Pipeline Safety Trust.

But he said there’s not much chance of PHMSA moving anytime soon on new rules for mobile LNG because its staff and leaders have a raft of other priorities, such as a wide-ranging rule on preventing methane leaks.

“They have a lot on their plate,” Kuprewicz said in an interview. “Methane regulation has them a little busy right now.”

A particular hurdle, Kuprewicz said, is Congress’ requirement that PHMSA rules meet a cost-benefit test stricter than those required at many other agencies.

“Time and time again I see PHMSA try to craft good regulations only to have it delayed by cost-benefit,” Kuprewicz said. “It is a real hurdle to getting stuff into regulation.”

PHMSA did not respond to a request for comment on the call for stricter regulation or whether the agency would have the capacity to undertake it.

Third-party standards

Rukke is among those who doesn’t like the practice of incorporating private standards into regulation.

“Third-party standards make it more difficult to do what we do,” Rukke said.

If he can’t get an answer soon, he said he could simply release his investigative report.

Toppenish is a small town in south-central Washington, east of the Cascade mountain range. The LNG operation was managed by Sapphire Gas Solutions of Conroe, Texas.

Sapphire trucked in the natural gas concentrate, then hooked up the tanks to equipment that feeds the gas into an apparatus that routes it to the pipe, according to news accounts and Cascade Natural Gas’ report to PHMSA.

Cascade Natural Gas declined to comment. Sapphire did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s not clear why, but during the operation, the driver of one of the trucks started his truck before it had been unhooked, according to a report filed with PHMSA by Cascade Natural Gas. The report said the truck moved forward about 15 feet.

That ripped the hoses off the receiving trailer, spewing the cryogenic gel out into the area and creating a vapor cloud, which ignited.

The Sapphire employee, a Texas man named Dan Barnett, was near the truck trailer at the time, monitoring the flow of gas. He died in the days that followed in the burn unit of a local hospital.

The blast disrupted gas service in four nearby communities. Roads were closed and authorities issued an evacuation order for people within a half-mile radius of the explosion.

Sapphire has already been hit with a proposed $24,000 fine by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries for five alleged “serious” violations of worker safety. One of them is for failing to put chocks under the wheels of the truck, as cited in a more recent NFPA standard.