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CORROSION FAILURES: El Paso Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion


Back Story

A 30-inch natural gas pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas (EPNG) exploded around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday August 19, 2000, leaving a crater about 86 feet long, 46 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The released gas ignited and burned for 55 minutes. It reportedly was visible about 20 miles to the north in Carlsbad, NM. Twelve persons who were camping under a concrete-decked steel bridge that supported the pipeline across the river were helpless to escape the inferno when the gas ignited, producing a 1,200-degree fireball. Their three vehicles were destroyed.

El Paso Explosion 

Cause of Failure

In a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the cause of the explosion was determined to be a significant reduction in the pipe wall thickness due to severe internal corrosion on a 50 year old pipeline. The severe corrosion occurred because EPNG’s corrosion control program failed to prevent, detect, or control internal corrosion within the pipeline. Contributing to the accident were ineffective federal preaccident inspections of EPNG that did not identify deficiencies in the company’s internal corrosion control program. The safety issues identified in this pipeline failure were the design and construction of the pipeline, the adequacy of EPNG’s internal corrosion control program, the adequacy of federal safety regulations for natural gas pipelines, and the adequacy of federal oversight of the pipeline operator.

Cost of Failure

The greatest cost of the pipeline explosion was the human loss -- 12 fatalities, including children and infants. The explosion destroyed two other pipeline bridges nearby, and the total property damage was nearly $1 million. EPNG was required to pay a $15.5 million civil penalty, and committed to spend $86 million to modify the 10,000-mile pipeline system that was part of the incident. After the accident, EPNG developed a program to train company personnel in internal corrosion and implemented an integrity management program applicable to the company’s 46,000 miles of gas pipelines. EPNG identified 60 segments of pipeline where the risk of internal corrosion was judged to be the greatest. These segments were inspected by in-line inspection or other non-destructive means; internal corrosion was discovered in eight pipelines. In six of these lines, the company judged the corrosion to be isolated instances. EPNG sent sections of the remaining two pipelines to the company’s metallurgical laboratory for analysis and chemical testing. The tests found a portion of one of these lines had general internal corrosion and localized pitting had reduced the pipe wall thickness by approximately 42 percent.


EPNG failed to employ personnel qualified in corrosion control methods; failed to investigate and mitigate internal corrosion in two of its pipelines transporting corrosive gas; and failed to suitably monitor those two pipelines to determine the effectiveness of steps taken to minimize internal corrosion. Proper lifecycle planning implemented from the construction of this pipeline and continued as required throughout the life of the pipeline would have prevented this incident.


Associated Press. “Pipeline Explosion Kills 10 Campers in N.M.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=96090&page=1%20(president%20of%20pipeline%20says%20explosion%20was%20%22an%20accident%22%20and%20a%20big%20%22mystery%22.

“El Paso Natural Gas to Pay $15.5 Million Penalty and Perform Comprehensive Reforms to Pipeline System.” Justice.gov. U.S. Department of Justice, Jul. 26, 2007. Web. Mar. 2014. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2007/July/07_enrd_548.html.

“Explosion at Natural Gas Pipeline in New Mexico in 2000.” Justice.gov. U.S. Department of Justice, Nov. 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. http://www.justice.gov/enrd/4431.htm.

Fowler, Tom. “El Paso Natural Gas to Pay $15.5 Million Penalty and Perform Comprehensive Reforms to Pipeline System.”Chron.com. Hearst Newspapers, 27 July 2007. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2007/July/07_enrd_548.html.

National Transportation Safety Board. 2003. Natural Gas Pipeline Rupture and Fire Near Carlsbad, New Mexico, August 19, 2000. Pipeline Accident Report NTSB/PAR-03/01. Washington, D.C. Retrieved 26 Mar. 2014 from http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/reports/2003/PAR0301.pdf