Sep 15 2009

Moss Bluff Incident

Spectra Energy’s 2004 Catastrophic Failure at Texas Storage Field:

Two Explosions; 6 bcf of natural gas burns for 6 1/2 Days;

Flames 1,000 feet high; Two Evacuations

Spectra Energy: “Don’t … Believe Your Blog Is An Appropriate Forum … To Engage in Specific Discussion of Our Operating Procedures…”

Blog Offers 3 Recommendations to Improve

Spectra Energy’s Credibility & Operational Excellence

Spectra Energy specializes in pipelines and underground natural gas storage fields. It owns or co-owns about eight underground storage fields in the U.S. and Canada – plus two liquefied natural gas storage facilities.

This includes the 12 billion cubic feet Steckman Ridge storage field in Clearville, Bedford County, Pennsylvania.

This storage field exists because the company seized property rights under the badge of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). During that process, Spectra Energy filed 11 separate civil actions against Bedford County property owners in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Johnstown, Pa).

On February 27, 2009, Judge Kim R. Gibson granted Spectra Energy the right to begin injecting gas into the Steckman Ridge storage field.

Spectra Energy opened an office in Pittsburgh and signaled it will expand operations in Pennsylvania.

In the company press release for that event (June 29), Bob Riga, general manager of Northeast marketing for Spectra Energy Transmission and the one in charge of the new Pittsburgh office is quoted as saying (emphasis added): “And, given our years of experience and existing footprint, we’re able to expand responsibly, managing costs and minimizing impacts to landowners, communities and the environment.”

Moss Bluff Incident

That confident attitude apparently does not extend to even a brief discussion of lessons learned from the 2004 incident at its Moss Bluff underground storage facility about 40 miles outside of Houston, Texas.

This was a catastrophic event that involved two explosions, a fire that burned for 6 1/2 days sending flames as high as 1,000 feet, as 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas burned off in an uncontrolled release.  Fortunately, there were no injuries; but there were two separate evacuations — 30 families in a one-mile radius followed by an evacuation of 100 people from a three-mile radius.

According to evaluations of the incident, there was a well casing separation in the salt cavern which allowed storage gas to enter above-ground brine piping.  In addition, there was no down-hole shut-off valve.

There are a number of treatments of the Moss Bluff incident.  The above references come from an article that is part of a special publication of the Geological Society, London.  The article is by Brent Miyazaki and it is titled, “Well integrity:  An overlooked source of risk and liability for underground natural gas storage.  Lessons learned from incidents in the USA.” The copyright on the article/publication is 2009. (See links & references below.)

It is important to note that every situation is different, of course — this was a salt cavern storage facility and Steckman Ridge is not.  And while the possibility of such catastrophic failure may be low, it is not zero.

Given the presence of its huge, 12 billion cubic feet underground natural gas storage facility in Clearville, PA, one might think that Spectra Energy is ready for any question.

Safety & Environment – Primary Priority?

After all, this is the company that told Clearville property owners in an August 26 notice signed by Michael Baehr, Senior Right of Way Representative for the Steckman Ridge Area Office: “Safety of the residents and the environment is our primary priority.”

This notice came after what the company said was an “emergency shutdown” of a nearly 5,000 horsepower compressor station due to a gas leak. The compressor station sits atop the 12 billion cubic feet underground natural gas storage field. (For details and background, see Sept. 8 blog on the emergency at this link):

Given Spectra Energy’s operational experience and ownership of pipelines and storage fields, I asked the company two questions:

  1. Can you share with me a short list of key lessons the company has learned from its experience with the 2004 incident at the Moss Bluff storage field in Texas where a fire burned for 6 1/2 days as 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas escaped and burned?
  2. Would it be impossible today for that kind of hazard to occur at Steckman Ridge, and why?

The complete reply from Toni Beck, Spectra Energy’s Group Vice President of Internal and External Affairs, is as follows:

“We’re always working to improve our practices and procedures and certainly learn from incidents when we have them. Steckman Ridge and Moss Bluff are very different facilities. We don’t, however, believe your blog is an appropriate forum for us to engage in a specific discussion of our operating procedures and facility design.

“Our focus on being a safe operator has always been, and continues to be, our highest priority and our operating procedures reflect that focus.”

Residents and property owners had an opportunity to watch Spectra Energy’s “focus on being a safe operator” following the company’s response to what it identified as an emergency shutdown of its nearly 5,000 horsepower compressor and the resulting contaminant overspray on nearby properties on August 23.

In other words, one test of operational readiness is how Spectra Energy responded in what they, themselves, describe as an emergency shutdown.

  • It took three days for the company to officially notify residents of the incident and ask them not to eat their vegetables until the contaminant could be tested.
  • Two days after the emergency, the company still had not contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). In fact, DEP contacted Spectra Energy first after talking to property owners.
  • Spectra Energy reps apparently had trouble finding the contaminant. First, they say they did not realize it had spread off site.  Second, they told one property owner that she wasn’t hit, then later admitted her property had been hit by the contaminant and couldn’t explain why they didn’t identify it, according to a neighboring property owner.

The company’s lack of a rapid response and outreach is worrisome. It does not inspire confidence in folks who officially assert:  ”Safety of the residents and the environment is our primary priority.”


If this were merely a drill, perhaps the discussion could be focused on improvement opportunities – and more drills.  But this was not a drill; it was a real-life emergency shutdown.  As residents know, this facility is approximately 3 miles from an elementary school (Mann-Monroe).

Does anybody at Spectra Energy own skin-in-the-game responsibility for this feeble performance? Is this the best citizens can expect from the company that calls itself “North America’s premier natural gas infrastructure company?”

Keep in mind that this is a company that submitted to FERC 9 pages of a “Stakeholder Contact List” in its June 29, 2007 “Pre-Filing Draft” to the federal agency. Nine pages listing federal, state (including DEP), and Bedford County officials. Did the company forget, ignore or lose its “contact list?”

Over the past two years, the lessons for landowners who must deal with Spectra Energy are consistent:

  • There is a disconnect between its stated principles and its actions.

In its latest emergency, did Spectra Energy demonstrate by its actions that “Safety of the residents and the environment is our primary priority?” Not at all. Its lackluster response was pathetic – and could prove dangerous.

  • Spectra Energy sees itself as the aggrieved party.

Like an adolescent, Spectra Energy is focused on itself. Spectra Energy personnel – from VPs to right-of-way agents – continue to ask landowners: Why do you keep coming after us? Why do you beat up on us? Spectra Energy’s corporate culture confuses superficial courtesies with accountability and an adult commitment to do the right thing.

Listen to Clearville property owner George Kuhne, as reported in the Bedford Gazette (August 29 & 30, 2009):

“We don’t have any particular bias against Steckman Ridge, George added. “Our frustration with the whole process has been, from our perspective, Steckman Ridge has never admitted to anything unless there was evidence to the contrary.

“You’re not told anything. To find anything out, you really have to push for it because no one is giving out information unless you force them to,” George said.

“Butter Job”

In our website video, Clearville landowner Dick Eckman has a wonderful expression for it: butter job. Spectra Energy is good at giving butter jobs to people and it’s easier than living up to those high-minded principles it brandishes on its website and in letters to landowners and regulatory agencies.

3 Recommendations

But we’re not here to merely criticize, though we hope this “tough love” feedback is constructive. We want Spectra Energy to be the best it can be in terms of a neighbor. Given its performance to date, this cannot happen without an adult conversation. Following are three recommendations to improve its credibility and operational excellence:

Spectra Energy must hold someone publicly responsible for the lack of a rapid response and outreach to residents, regulatory agencies and the Bedford County Emergency Response.

Consistent with corporate quality methodology, Spectra Energy should deliver a public improvement plan to support rapid response to emergency situations at Steckman Ridge. This is not a “conversation” or another “promise.” This is a written plan and commitment. Among other points, what will the company do differently and who will be accountable? As part of that, it will be vital to identify a responsible person who is on deck in Clearville – but choose wisely!

Spectra Energy must share key lessons learned from such catastrophic failures as Moss Bluff. The purpose here is not to “beat up” on Spectra Energy (as some of its right-of-way agents whine), but to inspire confidence in the company’s ability to learn from such incidents and to apply those learnings to improved safety for communities. And, yes, we understand Moss Bluff and Steckman Ridge have differences as underground storage fields, but there are also similarities. Tell us what you’ve learned.

As the sign says at the state border: Welcome to Pennsylvania.


“Well integrity:  An overlooked source of risk and liability for underground natural gas storage.  Lessons learned from incidents in the USA,” by Brent Miyazaki. His article is part of a special publication of the Geological Society, London (© The Geological Society of London 2009).  An abstract of the article is available online at the link shown. There is a cost of $30 to access the complete article for one day; but you can download a pdf of the 10-page article for printing out and reading (which I did). Miyazaki lists 33 references at the end of his article.

Link to free abstract:

Industrial Fire World Magazine (IFW): “What Lies Beneath” – article on Moss Bluff incident posted November/December 2004.  Six photos are on the right side of the page when it opens; click on the photos and they will enlarge slightly.


Spectra Energy Press Release on new Pittsburgh Office:

Steckman Ridge Storage Project Stakeholder Contact List Pre-Filing Draft and Stakeholder Contact List filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on June 29, 2007. See the last 9 pages at the end of the document, or pdf pages 60-68.

Click on PDF file: ferc-pre-filing-draft-6-29-07

One Response

  1. Spectra Energy Flip-Flops | CSRHub Says:

    [...] 3) Underground Natural Gas Reservoir Explosions – Spectra Energy’s underground natural gas storage reservoir outside of Houston (Moss Bluff) experienced catastrophic failure in 2004 with two explosions, 6 1/2 days of fire and two evacuations.  An estimated 6 bcf of natural gas was consumed during the fire. Industrial Fire World (IFW) Pdf: What Lies Beneath > Industrial Fire World USA TODAY Link: Gas Storage And Single-Point Failure Risk:  article_singlepointfailurerisk Spectra Energy Watch – Moss Bluff Incident:   [...]

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