Last Friday, October 11, a “Virtual Pipeline” truck carrying compressed natural gas crashed on a highway in Orange, Massachusetts, killing the driver, leaking the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, and leading local authorities to evacuate nearby residents.
“Let me put this in perspective, if one of these trucks blew up in the right conditions, it could destroy a neighborhood,” said Bill Huston, director of a research and advocacy program called Terra Vigilate, and one of a small group of advocates raising awareness about the extreme risks of fire and explosion of Virtual Pipeline trucks. “We have called every state and federal agency, we have called the news media, and nobody is responding. These trucks are a brand-new technology, and nearly entirely unregulated — it’s very frustrating.”
This was the second Virtual Pipeline truck crash within three weeks in which the driver was killed and the special cylinders containing the gas, which can be highly explosive, were compromised. It’s part of a string of accidents that a retired state regulator says indicates the vehicles may be violating a federal exemption allowing the trucks to operate, but which federal regulators have disputed.
Truck remains overturned off side of road,Rt 2 WB, Exit 14 ramp. Company trying to offload remaining gas into another trailer. Whatever remains will have to be bled off in controlled manner. Cause of crash still under investigation. Road closed both ways between Exits 13-15. https://t.co/AXIH1hzLwo pic.twitter.com/eSF4Qk1KmD— Mass State Police (@MassStatePolice) October 12, 2019
In May, DeSmog first reported the rise of these trucks, which haul gas between existing pipelines or to areas not connected to a natural gas distribution system, such as rural towns, and remote factories, universities, and hospitals. It is unclear where the truck that crashed in Massachusetts had received its load of gas or where its final delivery point was. Local media reported that the company operating the truck was a part of Kenan Advantage Group, the same company involved in a Virtual Pipeline truck crash in May near Cobleskill, New York. Kenan Advantage Group has not replied to DeSmog’s questions about the crashes.
Special Permit Allows Trucks to Carry Hazardous Material
Earlier this year DeSmog highlighted a March crash near Cobleskill, in which compressed gas had leaked from the demolished truck. DeSmog revealed that because in several crashes the compressed gas containers have ruptured, virtual pipeline trucks may be violating a Special Permit from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and thereby operating unlawfully. The permit states the containers must have “demonstrated the … ability to protect the tubes from damage due to front, rear, or side impact, and rollover.”
“There may be hundreds of these trucks crossing the country that we don’t know about, and more incidents where leakage from damage or rollover occurred that we don’t know about,” said retired New York commercial vehicle inspector Ron Barton, who together with Huston has been publicly critiquing the system of Virtual Pipelines. Barton explained that in at least three instances in New York state alone, and now one in Massachusetts, gas has leaked from the containers, meaning the containers were not appropriately “protected” during a crash.
Two companies construct the unique carbon fiber compressed natural gas containers: California-based Quantum Fuel Systems LLC and Hexagon Lincoln LLC, out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Barton pointed out that carbon fiber is not authorized as a material for containers holding compressed natural gas under hazardous material regulations, but by obtaining the Special Permit from PHMSA these companies are able to legally manufacture these containers.
Barton questions the general wisdom of the Special Permit and is now calling for its outright revocation and an immediate investigation. “If operators don’t meet that Special Permit, the permit should be yanked,” said Barton. “These trucks should not be allowed on the road.”
But that has not happened. Instead, at least to date, PHMSA has continued to allow the trucks to operate. Neither Hexagon Lincoln nor Quantum Fuel Systems has responded to a list of DeSmog questions regarding the recent crashes, and the safety of the trucks.
Two of the most prominent Virtual Pipeline companies are Vermont-based NG Advantage and Xpress Natural Gas (XNG), based in Andover, Massachusetts. XNG, the energy company responsible for a late September crash near Binghamton, New York, has had 11 crashes in New York alone in just the past two years, according to data with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The same data system indicates that NG Advantage has had one crash, in Vermont, in December of 2017. The owner of the truck and trailer in the recent Massachusetts crash, according to local media, was NG Advantage. Neither XNG nor NG Advantage has responded to DeSmog’s questions about the crashes.
Federal Regulators Defend Trucks
In a reply to DeSmog questions received earlier this week, PHMSA defended the Virtual Pipeline trucks. “It would be too early to speculate on the specific details of the recent incident and compliance with the special permit,” said a PHMSA spokesperson.* “PHMSA continuously reviews special permits and regulations to ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials.”
“In the July 11, 2018 incident near Exeter, New York, it was determined that the manufacturer and carrier had complied with all operational requirements of the special permit (DOT-SP 16524),” said the spokesperson, referring to a crash of a Virtual Pipeline truck operated by XNG in which gas leaked from the wrecked vehicle.
“It is important to note that designs are meant to survive conditions normally incident to transportation,” continued the spokesperson. “A rollover is not one of the conditions that trailers are designed to survive without leakage. Therefore, leakage after this type of incident does not invalidate the special permit.”
First responders at the scene where an Xpress Natural Gas truck carrying compressed natural gas rolled over in Hartwick, New York, on September 12, 2017. Credit: Courtesy of William Huston/Terra Vigilate
The reply from the federal regulator utterly shocked Barton. “Whoever wrote that is misinformed about the content of the special permit and knows nothing about hazardous materials regulation, or they are lying on purpose,” said Barton. “It is double talk, and looks like a third grader wrote it — it’s pretty sad they have not given you a better answer than that.”
“The special permit specifically requires that a cylinder has to survive a rollover without being compromised,” said Barton, “and failure to comply may allow for the revocation of the special permit.”
“There is a lot of money involved here,” added Barton. “It seems like they just consider these accidents collateral damage. The question is, will they think the same thing even after there has been a big explosion or fire?”
*Editor's Note 10/18/2019: This story was updated to correct the attribution.
Main image: First responders attend to an October 11, 2019 fatal rollover of a Virtual Pipeline truck near Orange, Massachusetts. Credit: Massachusetts State Police