Agency responds to findings of weak regulations, inadequate pipeline oversight

In 2010, two dramatic events – a million-gallon crude oil spill near Marshall, Mich., and a natural gas explosion in a San Bruno, Calif., neighborhood – focused the nation’s attention on pipeline safety.

On July 25, a crude oil release went undetected by a control center for 17 hours, allowing more than 1.1 million gallons of oil to saturate wetlands and flow via a tributary into the Kalamazoo River. More than 180,000 gallons of “submerged oil” remain at the bottom of the river and ongoing recovery costs are expected to exceed $1 billion, a record for onshore spills.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators identified corrosion fatigue cracks as the probable cause. An NTSB report also cites operator failures, including “inadequate training of control center personnel,” and it holds the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) partly responsible: “Contributing to the accident was the (PHMSA’s) weak regulation for assessing and repairing crack indications, as well as PHMSA’s ineffective oversight of pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures and public awareness.”

On Sept. 9, when a 30-inch-diameter segment of a natural gas pipeline owned and operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) ruptured in a residential area in San Bruno, 38 homes were destroyed, 70 were damaged, eight people were killed and many more were injured.

In its report on the explosion, the NTSB cites the probable cause as “inadequate quality assurance and quality control” by PG&E and an “inadequate pipeline integrity management program, which failed to detect and repair or remove the defective pipe section.” In addition, the investigation determined that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) failed to detect inadequacies in PG&E’s integrity management program and in the PHMSA’s integrity management inspection protocols and data collection.

Investigations into responsibility continue. In a July 19, 2013, press release, for example, San Bruno city officials said the PHMSA is challenging the CPUC to demonstrate compliance and prove its ability to ensure pipeline safety. And in a letter to the city, the PHMSA said it takes San Bruno’s concerns “very seriously” and announced plans to audit the CPUC.

On a broader scale, the PHMSA outlines its thoughts and recommendations in a 2012-2016 strategic plan, a report on the Michigan spill, and through related documents, Congressional testimony and other material posted on its website. The agency’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety (OHMS) further elaborates in Strategic Plan 2013-2016: The Road Ahead.

Priorities include:

  • placing a greater emphasis on incident reporting and early intervention
  • adherence to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS)
  • embracing sound risk management principles to help identify, assess, manage incidents and monitor trends

Along those lines, the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety is developing a risk management framework to ensure the entire agency operates as a risk-based organization.


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