County prepares for risky gas leaks

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Columbia County emergency personnel sprung into action Wednesday morning upon hearing news that a pipeline had ruptured off Tubman Road in Appling.

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Mark Burkhalter, of Dixie Pipeline Co., responds to questions during a drill on how to handle a propane pipe rupture at the Columbia County Emergency Management command center.   Jim Blaylock/Staff
Jim Blaylock/Staff
Mark Burkhalter, of Dixie Pipeline Co., responds to questions during a drill on how to handle a propane pipe rupture at the Columbia County Emergency Management command center.

The scenario, which took place inside the county's Emergency Operations Center, was hypothetical and designed to prepare responders for a potential pipeline crisis.

About 30 people participated in the exercise, in which a fictitious contracting company punctured a pipeline, causing a propane leak. Conditions were considered favorable for a flare-up.

"Do not do anything to the pipeline unless you're asked by the company to do that," the group was told by Dixie Pipeline Co. Eastern Area Manager Mark Burkhalter, who led the tabletop exercise.

After 911 and the pipeline's control center received notification, representatives from county agencies described their courses of action.

Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue was the first county department to be dispatched to the scene, and one of the first steps is to determine whether evacuation is necessary. Other organizations, such as the sheriff's office, Roads and Bridges, and Emergency and Operations, could assist in that task.

County Emergency and Operations Manager Pam Tucker said her department can also provide live models and topography maps for up-to-date information.

"We'll (also) use multiple ways of notifying people," she said.

Agencies such as Gold Cross EMS, Red Cross and the county Health Department would likely be placed on standby.

The Dixie Pipeline spans from Texas to Georgia and into North and South Carolina.

In Columbia County, the 8-inch pipe stretches about 17 miles and runs through Winfield and Appling. It also crosses through parts of Evans and past the Champions Retreat Golf Club and Riverwood Plantation into McCormick County, S.C.

Running a tabletop exercise is important for emergency personnel because when a pipeline is ruptured, it can result in tragedy.

"They do not happen very often but when they do, you'll know about it," said Michael Khayata of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

In 2003, part of the county's pipeline off Tubman Road did fail, Burkhalter said. Though proper protocol was followed, the leak was not found until the following morning by plane. No problems resulted, and the pipe was repaired.

In Thomson, a liquid propane pipeline explosion killed one man and injured another in July. McDuffie County Commissioner Paul McCorkle was grading his property with a bulldozer when he struck and ruptured the line owned by Dixie Pipeline. McCorkle suffered freeze burns from the gas leak. His son, Jason McCorkle, 23, was killed when the gas ignited.

Burkhalter said the line ignited in just 6 1/2 minutes and burned for more than 24 hours.

During the exercise, Burkhalter stressed that people should call 811 before beginning a project that involves digging.

"That is the biggest thing to help protect pipelines and other utilities is people calling before they dig," he said.

Reach Jenna Martin at (706) 868-1222, ext. 109, or jenna.martin@augustachronicle.com.


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