Mon, Aug 18, 2014 - Page 3 News List

INTERVIEW: Thorough oversight of pipelines is needed: expert

In light of the gas explosions in Greater Kaohsiung on July 31 and Aug. 1 that killed 30 people and injured 310, National Taiwan University Institute of Occupational Medicine and Industrial Hygiene professor Wu Kuen-yuh, in an interview with staff reporter Liu Li-jen of the ‘Liberty Times’ (the sister newspaper of the ‘Taipei Times’), called on the government to emulate other countries by establishing institutions specifically tasked with oversight and prevention of potential risks to avoid future catastrophes

National Taiwan University Institute of Occupational Medicine and Industrial Hygiene professor Wu Kuen-yuh gestures during an interview on Aug. 6.

Photo: Liu Hsin-de, Taipei Times

Liberty Times (LT): What kind of warning or lesson has the Greater Kaohsiung explosion given us?

Wu Kuen-yuh (吳焜裕): There are many problems with Greater Kaohsiung’s underground pipelines.

The pipelines involved in the explosion were put down in about 1990. At the time, the only concerns when laying down pipelines were the viability of technology, the lowering of material transfer costs and making greater profits.

The government at the time did not consider the danger the pipelines would pose to residents.

The LCY Chemical Group, for example, should receive its materials directly from the fifth naphtha cracker. It laid down the 4 inch pipe due to worries that the fifth naphtha cracker would not be able to provide the agreed-upon quota of propene, or to purchase cheaper propene from other sources.

There are other pipelines buried under Greater Kaohsiung as well, such as those transporting ethylene, toluene and ethylbenzene, as well as the carcinogenic benzene and vinyl chloride.

At room temperature, ethylene and propene are in a gaseous state. They are transported in great quantity through the pipes after the gas has been rendered into liquid state through high pressure and low temperature. However, the pipe walls need to be thick enough to withstand high pressure. For instance, the pipelines from LCY Chemical should have been capable of withstanding more than 40kg of high pressure. Even the tankers used to transport the gas over highways have to use this kind of technology to store the gas.

Taiwan is often hit by typhoons and earthquakes, giving rise to the need to prevent composite disasters.

For example, if a severe natural disaster occurs, it could damage the pipelines transporting petrochemical substances or natural gas, causing leakages or power outages. It could also lead to the loss of backup power.

Under such circumstances, the tanks holding the gas could suffer a destabilization in pressure, which could exceed the safety threshold and cause the tanks’ safety valves to automatically pop open to release the gas to depressurize the tanks, and the leaked gas could then be ignited by any spark.

Many nations have rules in place that put risk management and urban development side by side. These rules assess the range of impacts on gas pipes and the locations where gas pipes can be laid. The routing of pipes should be regulated through urban planning. It’s certainly one direction to consider when laying down future pipelines.

LT: Should the government make public the location of the pipes? Would it cause the kind of adverse effects the government says it is worried about?

Wu: The government said that if locations of the pipes are made public, it could lead to some people wishing to steal the petrochemical materials pumped through the pipes or even damage the pipes.

However, if the walls of the pipes are thick enough, it is no easy task to siphon off the materials. In addition, the general public would have no need to steal petrochemical materials in the first place. Such comments are most likely governmental efforts to dodge responsibility.

The most elementary information on pipelines, including pipeline distribution, what kind of materials they are carrying, the requirements for starting up the pipelines, the safety checkup data on the pipelines, security facilities and emergency measures, should all be made known to the public.

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