Federal Pipeline Safety Vacuum Magnifies Risks
Lack of Surprise Inspections and Independent Review Targeted in Lawsuit
Washington, DC — In a week witnessing three major pipeline spills, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the entity supposed to be our first line of defense, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), is not up to the task. The size of the gap between what it is supposed to do and what it actually does is the subject of a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
There are enough pipelines carrying natural gas and high-hazard liquids, such as oil and propane, under U.S. soil and waters to wrap around the equator more than 100 times – an estimated 2.5 million miles with thousands more dropped each year. In a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, PEER has sought to demonstrate whether the agency fulfills its mandated duties but PHMSA –
- Cannot name a single unannounced emergency preparedness exercise it has conducted in the past five years, even though such actions are required by law;
- Has only been able to supply a copy of six from the more than 300 facility response plans submitted by pipeline operators. Among the response plans still missing is the one for the Exxon-Mobil pipeline in Arkansas which is today still hemorrhaging product; and
- Cannot identify any pipeline response plan that PHMSA has rejected or amended.
One thing PHMSA could report to PEER, however, was that it has no record of ever reviewing inspection data and certifications submitted by pipeline operators during the past five years.
“PHMSA has not just been asleep at the switch; they cannot even find the switch,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass who filed the complaint today in the U.S. District Court for District of Columbia.
“Without surprise inspections or reviews of pipeline plans, the industry has been left to self-regulate.”
Last year, Congress gave PHMSA new enforcement authority and inspectors. From this past week, however, with three major spills, including the latest Shell spill in Texas, it is not clear this congressional reinforcement has made a difference. Each year, PHMSA has averaged more than 100 “significant” spills, i.e., incidents involving loss of life, injuries, fire and/or major spillage.
A key issue is whether the agency has learned any lessons from previous disasters. For example, PHMSA has yet to show that it has implemented critical reforms urged by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Government Accountability Office following recent major pipeline spills or explosions in Michigan (Kalamazoo River), Montana (Yellowstone River) and California (San Bruno).
“The emerging record documents an appalling dereliction of duty at what is supposed to be a critical safety agency,” Douglass added. “PHMSA needs more than minor repairs; it needs a major overhaul, starting with a leadership transplant.”