John Kennedy of Kinder Morgan said the biggest threat with the gas line is unlawful digging.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — If you are planning on digging on your property, you better check with the utility companies.
Running underneath properties across the Berkshires is a massive high-pressure gas line with an explosion span of some 500 yards that can leave a massive crater and cause significant damage.
"Those are big, big pipelines," Kinder Morgan Damage Prevention Supervisor John Kennedy told fire, police and ambulance agencies from around the county on Wednesday.
Kinder Morgan owns pipelines all over the country and, in the Berkshires, one of their main lines runs from the gulf through the county.
In Lee, three lines break off carrying natural gas all the way to North Adams. Those reduce down to a single line as they move north and are 24-, 30- and 36-inch pipes with some 700 pounds of pressure.
The high-pressure gas lines run underneath yards and parking lots, through residential and open spaces. The company doesn't own the land but has easements to access the pipeline, which was installed in the 1950s.
The company is federally regulated to keep a close eye on everything that happens near the lines and constantly monitor the pressure. Between air surveillance, driving and walking the lines, company personnel try to see everything that is happening so that someone doesn't unknowingly dig into them.
"Outside force damage continues to be the leading cause of pipeline incidents. Excavators are required to notify underground utility operators in advance of excavation activity," Kennedy said. "It is getting tougher and tougher and tougher. In the past, you couldn't go down to Home Depot and rent a backhoe. The weekend warrior can now do that. 'I'm going to do my own project; I'm going to dig my own swimming pool.' They don't know all of the rules and the laws."
Kennedy says it would be rare for a major incident to happen but the company has plans and resources in case it does. He was invited by the Central Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee to give a presentation on the system and the company's emergency response plans.
"Our company, we set up an emergency center and we'd be mobilizing big time at that point. We'll have people on site and whatever equipment in a matter of hours," Kennedy said.
He said 99 percent of all of incidents are because of unlawful digging.
In the past, illegal digging has caused massive explosions that have caused death and property damage, Kennedy said, and he showed photographs of fires that spanned 500 yards.
A full staff is on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week monitoring everything in the system. The technology used to measure the pressure in the system is designed to close valves when it detects a drop in pressure. Inspection gauges through the line to monitor for any abnormalities.
Meanwhile, workers are continually monitoring the area around the pipelines and if they see anybody digging close, staff is deployed to check on it. They also look for signs indicating a leak and if those are noticed, the company deploys staff.
The lines are built to last "virtually forever," said Kennedy.
David Grande of Berkshire Gas welcomed further meetings with emergency responders to ensure they are on the same page when it comes to any incident.
He outlined how the gas and the system works and gave advice on how to react to an incident, such as allowing the company to manipulate the valves because of the mapping of the system, not to close off release valves and not to extinguish but rather let it burn off to protect environment.
"The biggest thing is to protect people, property and the environment," Kennedy said.
From Kinder Morgan's main line run smaller lines to individual homes. Berkshire Gas operates those lines and David Grande, director of gas engineering and system operations, said the company has an average response time to an incident of 17 minutes.
Grande said Berkshire Gas works with municipal building departments to make sure the gas lines are sited before digging. But still there were 15 "dig ins" last year. Contractors can be fined for not notifying the gas company.
"Hopefully we get down to no dig ins," he said. "It is a continual effort to get it out to the public."
Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said there are some gas lines in the county that were illegally built. He once fought a garage fire caused by a homeowner who split the gas line to ran a line to the garage.
"Whenever you dig you could almost hit a line in some places," he said.
Grande said he welcomes the public safety officials to further coordinate response to any incident. While both companies say the chances of incidents are low, the threat warrants significant precaution.
"We're trying to get in tune with the emergency responders," Grande said.