Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Jet Fuel in the Backyard

Update (4:30pm EST): I drove over to Short Pump to try to get a picture of the site of the Great Jet Fuel Geyser, but the neighborhood was blocked off and immense equipment was in operation all over the area. There was no place to park on Church Road, and the police were directing traffic, so no photos today.

It looked like the EPA and the pipeline people were digging up all the culverts and replacing them. There were huge pumps operating just above Lake Loreine, gushing large amounts of water into the creek. I assume they’ve been drawing the water out of the creek, filtering it, and then putting it back. A strong chemical smell pervaded the whole area.

This is a huge, expensive operation. It makes me wonder how much overhead it adds to Plantation’s 2¢ a gallon pumping costs from Baton Rouge to D.C.

Jet fuel pipeline breakUntil last night I didn’t know that there’s a pipeline carrying jet fuel that runs from Louisiana to D.C. It passes under the West End of Richmond near Short Pump in Henrico County, through an area that was mostly countryside thirty years ago, but is now an upscale suburb.

According to a story on last night’s local NBC 12 news,

A 3,000 foot pipe ruptured in Henrico County Monday night, sending jet fuel 30 feet into the air. Residents had to be evacuated from about 20 homes. No one was injured.

The pipeline runs through the Short Pump neighborhood where Barrington Bridge Place meets Church Road. It carries the jet fuel from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Washington D.C.

This morning, that spill has been contained and residents are home, but they’ve still got to deal with the cleanup.

The actual TV news program had a lot more information, including interviews with local residents, video footage showing the big puddles of jet fuel still standing in people’s driveways, and shots of local emergency crews dealing with the situation. One man described standing in his backyard looking up at a “geyser” of the smelly stuff.

The local paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, also has a brief report this morning, including this information:

[Henrico Fire Lt. Gary] Hutchison said Plantation Pipe Line Co. had been working in the neighborhood during that time.

Plantation released a statement that said workers temporarily suspended operations on a portion of its pipeline. The statement said the company is working on the cleanup with emergency responders.

The petroleum product, similar to kerosene, emits flammable vapors, Hutchison said. But cool weather and moist ground reduced potential for the fuel to ignite, he said.

This same pipeline was one of those temporarily shut down by Hurricane Katrina last year. The Plantation Pipeline website says:

The Plantation system consists of approximately 3,100 miles of petroleum products pipelines connected to 130 shipper terminals in 8 states. These delivery terminals are owned by petroleum refiners, marketers, military, and commercial fuel users. Products are tendered to our system from 9 refineries in Mississippi and Louisiana, from other products pipeline systems, and via marine facilities on the Mississippi River. Deliveries of motor gasoline, diesel and home heating fuels, aviation gasolines, kerosenes, commercial and military jet fuels total more than 20 million gallons each day.

Products are received in minimum batches of 25,000 barrels (1,050,000 gallons) and shipped through lines ranging in size from 6 to 30-inches in diameter. A batch leaving Baton Rouge, Louisiana may travel as much as 1,100 miles to reach a final destination such as Washington National or Dulles airports. Total travel time for such a trip is approximately 20 days. Products can be efficiently transported from Baton Rouge to a shipper’s facility in Washington, D.C. for approximately two cents per gallon.

When I see those pipeline signs by the road, I usually think of sludgy oil running through the pipes. But apparently that’s not always the case.

The Plantation site also has a map showing their operation:
Plantation Pipeline

Here’s what the CSG Aviation Jet Fuel Information page has to say about jet fuel:


Jet A-1 is a kerosine grade of fuel suitable for most turbine engined aircraft. It is produced to a stringent internationally agreed standard, has a flash point above 38°C (100°F) and a freeze point maximum of -47°C. It is widely available outside the U.S.A. Jet A-1 meets the requirements of British specification DEF STAN 91-91 (Jet A-1), (formerly DERD 2494 (AVTUR)), ASTM specification D1655 (Jet A-1) and IATA Guidance Material (Kerosine Type), NATO Code F-35.


Jet A is a similar kerosine type of fuel, produced to an ASTM specification and normally only available in the U.S.A. It has the same flash point as Jet A-1 but a higher freeze point maximum (-40°C). It is supplied against the ASTM D1655 (Jet A) specification.

My uninformed opinion is that those Short Pump suburbanites were probably seeing a geyser of Jet A. Now, Jet A is not like gasoline for sheer combustibility, but it is the same stuff that made those big orange fireballs and black clouds around the World Trade Center back in 2001.

It has a flash point of about 120°F, which is not all that hot. What if someone had been out on the back deck firing up a barbecue, or lighting a cigarette?

In that case the NBC 12 story would have been different, a big fireball in the heart of Henrico County instead of a smelly puddle in the backyard. Heck, you’d have seen it yourself on the national news last night.

It makes me think about those 3,100 miles of pipeline. And men in rented cars with binoculars and videocameras, tourists from the Middle East, just here to see the sights.

Checking out the local hot spots. So to speak.


Wally Ballou said...

Pipeline explosions have occurred but the damage is usually highly localized and relatively minor (For liquid petroleum, anyway). You can rupture a pipeline and make a big mess (and a large local fire, maybe), but I don't think you can set one alight like a bomb. There is no air in the pipe, and the flame can't travel "upstream" against the tremendous pressure/velocity at the point of rupture.

There have been lots of pipeline explosions in Iraq, Russia, former Soviet respubliks. etc, but they tend to get cleaned up fast. Now, a LNG explosion could be something else:


Baron Bodissey said...

Wally, you are right about LNG. An alert reader sent me a set of links about LNG (much of which comes in from Trinidad, BTW) a while back. When I have time (ha!) I'm going to collect data & post on it.

According to some sources, an LNG container explosion in a port could well be comparable to a nucular bomb in force & damage.

Wally Ballou said...

I might be skeptical about the claimed danger of an LNG container ship. It's not the same thing as a ruptured LNG pipeline. When a pipeline breaks, you have a large air/fuel mixture in a hurry. LNG is shipped supercooled and non-pressurized, in multi-hulled containers. I have been Googling around for the physics of an LNG tanker explosion, and it is a complex subject. It seems that an explosion which completely destroyed the container ship itslef and its immeidate neighbors may or may not be a possibility, depending on whom you believe. The possibility of a giant fireball mini-nuke sized explosion seems extremely remote. Too many things would need to happen just right.

There has never been a serious accident involving LNG transport in 40 years.

Here's what appears to be a non-hyped analysis, even though it from the State of California gummint:

Put it on the worry back burner.

Wally Ballou said...

Whoops - My link disappeared. I didn't put anyhtign between the brackets to link on.
Try this

linearthinker said...

The flash point is the lowest temperature at which a liquid or solid gives off enough vapour to form a flammable air-vapour mixture near its surface.


The most commonly known flammable liquid is gasoline. It has a flash point of about -50° F (-65° C).

Jet-A explosion hazard would appear to be minimal this time of year. Would I fire up a Winston standing downwind of the geyser? Nope.

Clean up will be expensive if VA standards are anything like CA.

Baron Bodissey said...


That's a real cautionary tale. I hope they do it right; a lot of people live within a half-mile radius of there. Also a major shopping center and a school.

linear --

Thanks for the info about flashpoint; I didn't know that.

Did anybody besides me notice that the Chesapeake Bay is filled in down to the VA state line in that map? Somebody took "Pave the Bay" serously...

dirty dingus said...

The other big bang recently was the Buncefield storage depot in the UK - no one was killed and very few people hurt mostly because it occured on a sunday morning when there was no one about but, as various commenters noted, if it had taken place 24 hours later we would probably have been looking at a large number of deaths.

If I were a terrorist that would be the sort of target I'd go for rather than a pipeline.

Always On Watch said...

I had no idea this pipeline is so close to where I live!

linearthinker said...

There has never been a serious accident involving LNG transport in 40 years.
Maybe you quote an old report? Some serious LNG exposions in New Mexico, c.2000, involved pipelines.
The pipeline explosion (August, 2000, 10 campers killed)was the second major blast in the area in the past nine months. In November 1999 two truck drivers were injured, one critically, when their vehicles were blown off the highway when a liquid propane transmission line operated by Rio Grande Pipeline Co., exploded on U.S. 62-180, just outside Salt Flat, about 110 miles northwest of Pecos and 60 miles west of Saturday's explosion site. The explosion also engulfed a pipeline operated by Chevron USA, which supplies crude oil to the company's El Paso refinery.

According to the El Paso Times, a pocket of gas that had built up from the leaking pipeline was ignited when two westbound school buses carrying about 20 children passed by, a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper said at the scene. The children were not harmed, but the two trucks driving behind the buses were engulfed in flames, he said.

NTSB investigation found pipeline corrosion and maintenance issues responsible for the 8/2000 tragedy. Campers were caught in a middle of the night inferno when a pocket of gas ignited. The leak occured near a river crossing. If the event occured in a more populated area, casualties could have been much higher, and more media fuss would have resulted.

linearthinker said...

Why is LPG/LNG such a dangerous risk?

The gas produced by vaporising LNG or LPG under accidental release conditions is at a temperature close to that of the cryogenic liquid itself (LNG –164 °C, LPG [propane] –40 °C). Vapours boiling-off are heavier than air and form a cold vapour cloud hanging above the spillage. As one would expect, boil off rates are very rapid (especially on LNG) immediately following a spill during the so-called 'transient' phase, but soon settle down into a "steady state" condition. Unless immediate action is taken, air movements will begin spreading this cloud horizontally in all directions from the spill until it is sufficiently diluted with air to become flammable. Then, somewhere at the edge, where the vapour is well mixed with air, forming a gas concentration of around 10%, it will find a source of ignition, ignite and burnback to the liquid pool.

If the vapours in this initial "transient" boil-off phase do ignite, a major problem exists in addition to the vapour cloud - that of severe radiated heat. The degree of severity depends on how far away the fire is from surrounding buildings, plant and personnel on site, as well as the prevailing environmental conditions at this time. However buildings a considerable distance from the fire will be at risk even during still air conditions and any wind will dramatically increase the radiated heat in the downwind direction, so protective action must be taken.

Also, check out "BLEVE" at the link. When I was active with the local volunteer fire department, I remember some interesting training in dealing with propane tank and transport 'issues'. I hope I'm not perceived as an alarmist. The risks deserve understanding.

linearthinker said...

Sorry for the long comments. If I condensed them, I'd risk garbling the message.

Wally Ballou said...

Sorry, I meant "tranport by ship" which is what the Baron was speculating about as a near-nuke experience. As for LPG pipeline mishaps, I provided an example myself in a previous comment.