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15

Gas Company Begins Construction of Pipeline in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Construction of a 753-mile natural gas pipeline began Monday in Tampa Bay...

Construction of a 753-mile natural gas pipeline began Monday in Tampa Bay, less than two weeks after a drilling mishap in the Gulf of Mexico injured 39 and days after an investigation into pipeline oversight raised troubling questions about industry safety.

But neither the mishap nor the investigation should alarm residents, said Chris Stockton, a spokesman for Gulfstream Natural Gas System Inc., the company building the line.

An aggressive inspection schedule -- partially motivated by Gulfstream's need to keep money flowing to its bottom line -- is the foundation of a safety plan covering the pipeline designed to link Florida to Alabama's gas storage fields.

Construction of the line, anchored at Port Manatee, began Monday but had to be suspended because of poor weather after eight of the 40-foot segments were linked. The project is scheduled to be completed in June.

Safety is our top priority, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure the pipeline is safe, Stockton said. It's good business, and it's the right thing to do.

Corrosion of the steel segments is the biggest threat to pipelines and was the cause of Florida's only major rupture in Vero Beach 15 years ago, said Roger Fletcher, a state utilities system engineer. No one was injured in that incident. However, some pipelines still in use in Florida date as far back as the 1930s.

Since 1971, pipelines have been required to include cathodic protection, which delivers an extremely low voltage of electricity to the outside of the pipe to keep it free of rust.

If a pipeline is maintained and has good cathodic protection, it should be as good today as the day it was installed, Fletcher said.

Company inspectors will check the Gulfstream pipeline once a week at road crossings and other high-traffic areas as it crosses Florida, Stockton said. Two to three times a year, a crew will walk the pipeline's path with electronic sniffers that can detect early signs of an impending leak. And helicopters and planes will fly over the route periodically to make sure unauthorized construction or digging is not occurring near the line.

There's a lot of things we are going to do to protect that asset in the ground, Stockton said.

The results of an investigation released Sunday by the Austin American-Statesman suggest that company-driven initiatives will be crucial, because federal oversight is severely lacking. The report found that the federal Office of Pipeline Safety has even lost track of some of the nation's 2 million miles of oil and gas pipeline.

The findings come just days after a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico was evacuated after prematurely tapping into a natural gas field and causing a blow-out that injured 39 and left one worker missing. Crews still haven't managed to cap the well, which is spewing natural gas into the atmosphere.

Regulation of the Gulfstream pipeline will fall mainly under the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, although pipe segments linking the main line to power plants and other facilities will by monitored by the Florida Public Service Commission.

We deal with the direct sales portion, and we have a set of regulations they have to abide by, Fletcher said.

State regulators also are routinely called upon to do checks for the federal office to save time and travel, Fletcher said.

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