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.”