The Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, a government watchdog, has found that the federal agency responsible for making sure states effectively oversee the safety of natural gas and other pipelines is failing to do its job. The report that contained this finding was released by the Inspector General on May 9. The report said that the federal effort is so riddled with weaknesses that it’s not possible to ensure states are enforcing pipeline safety. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), according to the report, isn’t making sure that key state inspectors are properly trained, that inspections are being conducted frequently enough and that inspections target the most risky pipelines.
Accident investigators had cited weak state and federal oversight as contributing factors in the gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed a subdivision in a California suburb, south of San Francisco. The nation’s network of about 2.5 million miles of pipelines moves millions of gallons of hazardous liquids and 55 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day. It should be noted that 85 percent of these pipelines are under state authority. The report doesn’t address the safety administration’s oversight of interstate pipelines such as the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
It appears from the report that, among the weaknesses, the safety administration is using an outdated formula to calculate the minimum number of inspectors states need. The report found that more inspectors may be needed to carry out new inspection methods and responsibilities since the formula was developed in the 1990s. More than 20 percent of the nation’s total gas distribution pipelines are more than 50 years old or composed of material such as cast iron or bare steel that are more susceptible to failure than newer pipelines made with more resilient materials.
The safety administration’s staffing formula also doesn’t take into account whether more personnel are needed to inspect these riskier pipelines, the report said. The agency also hasn’t set minimum qualifications for state inspectors who lead inspection teams, according to the report. In one state, for example, the report said an inspector with less than one year’s experience was allowed to lead inspections. Assistant Inspector General Jeffrey Guzzetti said in the report:
Because it has not set minimum qualifications for state inspectors to lead standard inspections, PHMSA cannot be sure that state inspections cover all federal requirements and ensure pipeline operators maintain safety.
The safety administration requires states to use 14 risk factors when deciding how to prioritize pipeline inspections, but the report says the PHMSA isn’t explicit on how the risk factors are supposed to be weighed. As a result, four of five states examined by the Inspector General’s office were simply scheduling inspections based on how long it had been since the previous inspection, ignoring other risk factors, the report said. The safety administration also doesn’t tell states how often pipelines must be inspected. Investigators found one state was allowing as long as eight years to lapse between reviews. It was pointed out by Mr. Guzzetti that, “Because of these oversight gaps, PHMSA cannot be sure that states detect and mitigate safety risks.”
PHMSA has six evaluators who annually certify 48 state agencies and conduct in-depth reviews every three years to ensure states are following federal guidelines, the report said. That is a recipe for disaster and, unfortunately, PHMSA provides about 80 percent of the funds states spend on pipeline safety, according to the report. It’s quite obvious that some major changes need to be made in this important area of concern. That’s especially true because of the renewed interest in building more pipeline. Common sense tells us that safety must be a top priority in the design, construction and operation of a pipeline. We can ill afford to fail to properly fund and staff PHMSA. Such a failure would be a tremendous mistake and also very costly.
Source: Claims Journal
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