Washington, DC — Following two of the most destructive pipeline accidents in U.S. history, the federal pipeline agency has implemented only three of 20 corrective steps urged by the National Transportation Safety Board, according to a review by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has not even begun to undertake the most significant recommendations, months after they were issued by the NTSB.
In 2010, a natural gas line explosion in San Bruno, California killed eight people and totally leveled a neighborhood. Faulty pipe welding was a culprit; an audit found hundreds more miles of Northern California pipeline similarly vulnerable. That same year, a massive breach of an Enbridge pipeline pumped a million gallons of heavy tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. That cleanup is still not complete but it is already the largest, most expensive pipeline cleanup in U.S. history.
The NTSB investigative report on the San Bruno explosion was issued nearly two years ago in August 2011. Its Enbridge report came out in July 2012. A review of Federal Register filings required as a first step shows PHMSA has yet to start addressing key measures identified by the NTSB. Unimplemented recommendations to prevent another San Bruno-type explosion include –
- Requiring automatic shutoff valves or remote control valves in high consequence areas;
- Ensuring that all gas transmission pipelines constructed before 1970 have a hydrostatic pressure test that incorporates a spike test; and
- Auditing operator safety plans for accuracy, especially as they relate to leak incident measures.
Meanwhile, the City and County of San Francisco became so frustrated that it has sued PHMSA last year for failure to supervise the California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency delegated to administer federal pipeline requirements, yet another ignored NTSB recommendation.
On Enbridge, PHMSA has done even worse, taking up none of the NTSB recommendations, including:
- Tightening standards for detecting and monitoring pipeline cracks, including growth in cracking caused by fatigue, corrosion or stress;
- Advising all hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline operators about the deficiencies found at Enbridge and how to avoid them; and
- Ensuring that appropriate containment equipment is available at all locations along the pipeline to minimize spread of oil after a rupture.
“These are basic commonsense steps but, instead of moving forward, PHMSA chooses to blindly stumble from one disaster to the next as if there were no lessons learned,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, noting that it is not surprising PHMSA has been unable to answer Freedom of Information Act requests for its response to NTSB recommendations. “The record indicates this agency does a much better job of protecting industry than it does protecting public safety.”
Each year, there are more than 100 “significant” pipeline spills involving loss of life, injuries, fire and/or major spillage. During the past two decades, pipelines have spilled 110 million gallons of hazardous liquids. With each passing year, less is recovered and more stays in streams, soil and groundwater. Looming on the horizon is another massive pipeline project for transporting tar sands from Canada to Texas – Keystone XL. Breakdowns on that pipeline would create even bigger environmental headaches.