Watchdog Report Finds Pipeline Regulators Spent More Time With Industry Than On Oil Spills

Watchdog Report Finds Pipeline Regulators Spent More Time With Industry Than On Oil Spills.


Full report:

Feds fail to inspect 2 Million miles of pipelines

Central Valley Business Times.

Report: Feds fail to inspect 2 Million miles of pipelines 

July 30, 2013 8:46am

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•  Is it rupture roulette?

•  “Like searching for gas leaks with a lit candle”

Some two million miles of pipelines carrying natural gas, petroleum and hazardous liquids are going uninspected by the federal agency charged with safety oversight, says the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

It claims that only a small fraction of the nation’s vast network of pipelines has undergone any sort of inspection in recent years, including several hundred pipelines that have spilled or broken down.

(Download a pdf of the inspection record by clicking on the link below.)

As a result, the safety and reliability of much of this key but volatile transport grid remains unknown, it says.

Records obtained from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that:

• Of the more than 2.6 million oil, natural gas and propane pipeline miles regulated by PHMSA less than a fifth (583,692) has been inspected by federal or state officials since 2006;

• Another 132,300 miles have been inspected by their operators during that same period but PHMSA cannot say whether any industry inspections have been independently reviewed;

• Since 2006, there have been more than 300 incidents, such as a spill, explosion or breakdown, which triggered no follow-up inspection.

Despite the figures, PHMSA’s latest annual report on to Congress on inspection and enforcement needs is less than one page long and mentions no need or even desire to increase inspections.

“At the current rate, most of our oil and gas pipeline network will not be inspected in this generation,” says Kathryn Douglass, an attorney for PEER, noting that the present rate of less than one thousand federal and state inspections each year cannot keep pace with pipeline expansion.

“Inspections are supposed to prevent damaging incidents but the main way pipeline deficiencies now become manifest is when ruptures or explosions make them obvious,” she says. “This approach to pipeline safety is like searching for gas leaks with a lit candle.”

Nor is it clear that the causes of pipeline breakdowns are effectively remedied even after major spills or blasts occur, says PEER. In the period since 2006, PHMSA recorded 3,599 incidents, defined as a release resulting in injury or death or major property losses, but took only 1,526 enforcement actions during the same period, according to PEER’s review of the records

Similarly, months following “major pipeline disasters,” as PEER puts it, PHMSA has yet to implement the vast majority of corrective measures recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“PHMSA is a sleepy, industry-dominated agency that tries to remain obscure by doing as little as possible,” says Ms. Douglass.






For Immediate Release: Jul 17, 2013

Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337


Scant Oversight or Local Coordination on Pipeline Emergency Response Plans

Washington, DC — The federal pipeline safety agency has not conducted a single surprise exercise for more than eight years to determine whether an operator can execute emergency response plans, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nor does the agency have a ready account of which emergency response plans it has approved, rejected or changed.

More than 2.5 million miles of pipelines carrying oil, natural gas and high-hazard liquids, honeycomb the U.S. Each year, there are more than 100 “significant” pipeline accidents involving loss of life, injuries, fire and/or major spillage. Recent pipeline spills and explosions have had catastrophic results.

Federal guidelines call for up to 20 unannounced exercises annually to demonstrate an operator’s “ability to respond to a worst case discharge spill event.” Yet in documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) concedes that –

  • It has not conducted any unannounced safety exercise since 2005, when it only conducted one. In the preceding 10 year period, the agency conducted 36 surprise exercises, peaking with 14 in 1997;
  • In the last five years, PHMSA has completed only 26 announced safety reviews, with only one initiated in 2012. More than half of all these reviews (15) occurred in 2011; and
  • The agency cited two exercises in 2004 which were labeled “unknown” because PHMSA had no record on whether they were surprise or scheduled.

“Since there are no surprise safety drills, it should be no surprise when the on-scene response to actual emergencies is lacking,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who brought the suit that pried the documents loose. “Given PHMSA’s supine posture, pipelines in America are essentially self-regulated.”

Beyond whether operators can carry out their emergency response plans, the adequacy of those plans also remains in question. Months after PEER asked and ultimately sued PHMSA to produce response plans submitted by pipeline operators, the agency still has only been able to provide a handful of the 314 current plans. Moreover, PHMSA cannot identify a single one of the more than 1,000 pipeline response plans it has reviewed during the past five years that it has rejected or amended.

“If it takes PHMSA months to produce copies of emergency response plans, that means communities on the front line have no access to the safety playbook in case of an accident,” Douglass added, noting that in recent major pipeline spills, local emergency response agencies were in the dark both about what was occurring and what the planned response was supposed to include. “We should not have to sue in federal court to obtain pipeline emergency response plans – they should be posted routinely on the web.”


See PMSA list of pipeline safety exercises – unannounced, announced and unknown

Look at federal guidance on unannounced pipeline exercises

Scan the list of all current and archived facility response plans

View PHMSA failure to implement NTSB recommendations following recent disasters