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Federal Review Finds Safety Risks in Natural Gas Pipeline Oversight

Matthew McFeeley

Posted May 12, 2014

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A review prompted by one of the worst pipeline accidents in history has found that there are still significant gaps in federal oversight of state pipeline safety programs. In 2010, a pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California destroyed more than 30 homes, killing 8 people and injuring many more.  Almost four years later, the report found, officials still have not put important safeguards in place to ensure that minimum safety standards are met.  The review was conducted by the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, which oversees the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).


Devastation after the San Bruno pipeline explosion.  Photo by Thomas Hawk; used under Creative Commons License

PHMSA provides funding to states to conduct pipeline inspections and is charged with ensuring that federal safety standards are met.  But the investigators found a wide range of problems with PHMSA’s review of these programs, including:

  • None of the states reviewed could show that they inspected all pipelines within the federally-required timeframes but PHMSA’s review did not even identify these violations.
  • The investigators found 135 violations in the programs of five randomly selected states.  PHMSA identified only 12 of those violations. 
  • While inspectors are supposed to complete six courses to become “fully trained” in standard pipeline inspections, minimum qualifications for inspectors were not enforced, and in at least one case a lead inspector had not completed any of the six required courses.
  • States had not developed adequate programs to ensure that inspections of pipelines posing the highest safety risk are prioritized and PHMSA guidelines do not provide the necessary guidance to identify high-risk pipelines and pipeline operators. 

I’ve blogged before about how natural gas “gathering lines” are entirely unregulated and therefore never inspected by regulators.  Unfortunately, even for pipelines covered by federal and state oversight, significant safety concerns remain.

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