Transparency Lacking in Federal Pipeline Safety Program
Basic Preparedness and Performance Information Should be on PHMSA Website
Washington, DC — As more oil and gas pipelines splay across the U.S., less information is publicly available about the safety of these high-risk facilities and what is being done to reduce those risks, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group today called upon the federal pipeline safety agency to start putting safety-related information, such as response plans, incident reports and pipeline inspection data, on its website.
“Basic information about the reliability of our immense pipeline network should be readily available for all to see,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, whose organization has had to sue the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to force it to disclose facility response plans for systems it regulates. “It is ridiculous that it takes a federal case to uncover crucial safety information.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Government Accountability Office and Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General have all taken PHMSA to task for keeping state and local first responders in the dark on pipeline failures. PHMSA has historically been hard to pry information out of.
In an October 30, 2013 letter, PHMSA Associate Administer Jeffrey Wiese complained that data PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act did not convey the entire picture. PEER responded by urging PHMSA to stop making selective information releases and start displaying, among other things:
- All facility response plans to help state and local agencies and adjacent communities better prepare for future incidents (PHMSA is releasing this information to PEER from a lawsuit filed last April but is producing slowly at a rate that would extend beyond 2014);
- All reports of investigation and hazardous material spills immediately after they are reported; and
- A current database of inspections of pipeline units in order to monitor at-risk pipelines.
The frustration with PHMSA’s lack of transparency extends to safety measures the agency is supposed to be implementing. In an October 30, 2013 letter, U.S. Representative John Dingell (D-MI) demanded that PHMSA account for an array of safety steps it was mandated to adopt by the Pipeline Safety Act of 2011. Nor has PHMSA put in place key NTSB safety recommendations following the natural gas line explosion in San Bruno, California which killed eight and totally leveled a neighborhood, or the massive Enbridge breach which gushed a million gallons of tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River – both back in 2010.
By contrast, Mr. Wiese has touted the creation of a PHMSA YouTube channel to sway industry into making voluntary safety improvements. “We’ll be trying to socialize these concepts,” he stated after downplaying the effectiveness of regulation or enforcement during a July 24th conference.
“To protect our expanding 2.6 million-mile network of oil, natural gas and propane pipelines, we will need to see more than YouTube videos,” Douglass added, calling PHMSA among the most critical agencies you have never heard of. “If PHMSA wants to be better understood, it must begin to inform rather than stonewall the public.”