About 9:30 a.m. Sunday, several residents in the River Market Tower in downtown Little Rock heard a loud screech. Thinking the sound was from a low-flying jet, they looked out to see two large spouts of water shooting skyward, then falling back into the Arkansas River.
The towboat Chris M, owned by Jeffrey Sand Co. in North Little Rock, was damaged Sunday morning when a natural gas pipeline in the Arkansas River ruptured.
A sign marks the location of the Spectra Energy Corp. pipeline where it enters the Arkansas River in Little Rock between East End Park and Carver Magnet Elementary.
"It was kind of like a geyser on each side of the river," said Janell Mason. "It just kept shooting up. It would go down and then it would shoot up some more."
Witnesses said the spouts reached as high as the tops of trees lining the river.
Mason said she looked for emergency vehicles that might be responding, but there were none.
"It was just nothing," she said. "Like it just went away."
The streams were forced skyward when a 24-inch pipeline exploded beneath the flooded river, releasing 3.9 million cubic feet of natural gas. The pipeline, part of the Texas Eastern Transmission system, crosses the river between Little Rock and North Little Rock, about a mile east of Interstate 30.
At 1:48 p.m. Monday, Spectra Energy Corp., the owner of the pipeline, alerted the National Response Center, according to an internal memorandum from Spectra Energy dated Monday. The National Response Center is the federal agency that records all hazardous-substance spills.
City officials and residents who live and work near the pipeline said Wednesday that they wish someone had explained what had happened.
"I didn't know what to think," said Tony Cassady, who rushed to take a photo. "I just assumed somebody knew about it. I didn't think to call about it."
Spectra Energy notified the Little Rock mayor's office after 7 a.m. Tuesday. The North Little Rock mayor's office was notified at 7:58 a.m.
"While we appreciate efforts to keep city leadership informed during this incident, public safety and emergency personnel should have been notified immediately," said Luis Gonzalez, spokesman for Little Rock, in an email.
In an email to Little Rock officials the company said, "Spectra Energy was notified by a marine vessel of an incident with one of our auxiliary natural gas lines that cross the river."
Spectra Energy said in the email that it notified the "State of Arkansas" and U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
"We have initiated an investigation and, working with the Coast Guard, our highly trained team is responding at the location of the release," the email said.
A 2-mile section of the Arkansas River remains closed to traffic as the company tries to determine what caused the rupture and how to repair it, said Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash, 8th District spokesman for the Coast Guard.
The pipeline that failed is a backup line that runs parallel to Spectra Energy's main transmission line. The main pipeline, which also crosses the river, stretches from Texas to New Jersey. In Arkansas, the main line provides natural gas to CenterPoint Energy.
The main gas line, which is about 10 feet from the backup pipe, was operating properly but the company shut it down until it can be inspected, according to the internal memo.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is "looking into what caused the pipeline to fail," said Damon Hill, a spokesman for the agency.
"We didn't send an inspector to the site but we are investigating," he said.
Hill said Spectra Energy will be required to send parts of the pipeline to a laboratory so they may be examined.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspects pipelines at least every two years, Hill said, adding that he did not know the last time Spectra Energy's line was inspected. He also did not know the age of the pipeline.
Hill said Spectra Energy is required to notify the National Response Center when a spill occurs and that the center alerts other regulatory and emergency agencies.
An initial report issued Monday by the National Response Center said, "Caller stated that there could possibly be a leak from a pipeline as evidenced from opening a valve that released bubbles to the surface. The damage could have possibly been from a tug boat striking the pipeline."
Clay McGeorge, president of Jeffrey Sand Co., did not return a phone call Wednesday. He said Tuesday that a towboat belonging to the company was damaged as a result of the leak.
Photos of the towboat, the Chris M, show damage from what appear to be slabs of concrete and other debris.
Mike Metzler, a towboat captain, said he was at church Sunday when another captain called him about a rush of water moving downstream. He then received a second call from a manager at Jeffrey Sand about damage to a boat.
"We couldn't figure out what happened because there was no spill or bubbling in the river," Metzler said.
He said the Chris M, which is covered in dents, was tied up when the pipeline ruptured.
"It was just an innocent bystander," Metzler said, adding, "It's the explosion of [the pipeline] that bothers me."
In an email Wednesday, a spokesman for Spectra Energy said river current is making it difficult for divers to inspect the pipeline.
Spectra Energy said the leak left no residual natural gas in the river and that the released gas would have dissipated.
"It's really not possible to say what sort of effect such a release from a natural gas pipeline could have on a waterway since there are so many factors involved including how swiftly the current is moving and how large the release was," said Katherine Benenati, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, in an email.
She said the agency does not regulate interstate pipelines and has no plans to visit the site.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is aware of the leak, it is not responding because natural gas is exempt from the list of hazardous materials to which the agency is required to respond, said Jennah Durant, spokesman for the agency's regional office.
The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has no jurisdiction over the pipeline. The Arkansas Public Service Commission was aware of the leak, said John Bethel, executive director of the agency's general staff, but also has no regulatory authority involving leaks.
The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers is also not involved, said spokesman Laurie Driver.
"We don't have the authority to help fix the pipeline," Driver said, adding that the agency may become involved with the process if the company needs a permit to repair the pipeline.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management was not notified about the leak, said spokesman Rick Fahr. The agency is not helping with the inspection, he said, but is normally informed by government agencies working at similar sites.
"We do not have a report of any sort," Fahr said, adding that he first learned about the leak on social media.
Shane Carter, the spokesman for nearby Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field, said the airport was not notified about the leak and that there was no damage to the airport.
Spokesmen for the Little Rock Fire Department and Police Department told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday that their agencies were unaware that the line had ruptured.
The nearby Little Rock Port Authority learned about the pipeline break Tuesday afternoon from city officials, said Bryan Day, the port's executive director.
"It would have been nice to have been in the loop," Day said.
Officials at the nearby Clinton Presidential Center were also unaware of the pipeline leak.
"We found out about the incident through local media," said Jordan Johnson, spokesman for the Clinton Foundation. "We don't perceive this to be a concern at this point."
Information for this article was contributed by Claire Williams of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 06/04/2015
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