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PHMSA Head Uncertain if Pipe Accidents 'Sign of System Under Stress'

The head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) Thursday was joined by the oil and natural gas industry in calling for Congress to pass a strong pipeline reauthorization bill this year in light of the rash of pipeline accidents in the past year.

When pressed as to whether the pipeline incidents in San Bruno, CA; Allentown, PA; and Marshal, MI, were "just a lot of bad luck...or is our pipeline safety system under substantial stress," PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman told a House Energy and Power Subcommittee that "I wish I could say one or the other."

The fact that "all three of the incidents have occurred in every part of the pipeline sector -- distribution, transmission and hazardous liquids -- is a concern. And the fact that they have all been in high-consequence areas is one of great concern to me, which is why we have been already undertaking many initiatives that are part of this legislative proposal," she said.

Quarterman said her agency has "good resources" to ensure the safety of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure, but California Rep. Henry Waxman disagreed. "I think your agency is stretched pretty thin," he noted, adding that it has only 136 inspectors and enforcement staffers to take care of 500,000 miles of pipeline. "That's over 3,500 miles per inspector."

Quarterman testified that Department of Transportation's PHMSA increased its inspection and enforcement personnel by 29% since 2008.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Power called the hearing to consider pipeline reauthorization legislation. In early May the Senate Commerce Committee voted out its pipeline safety bill (S. 275), which would levy stiffer penalties following the rash of explosions in the past year (see Daily GPI, May 6).

As in the Senate measure, Quarterman said she supported increasing civil penalties for serious pipeline violations that cause fatalities. Specifically, she noted she favored raising the cap to $250,000 per violation per day and $2.5 million per series of related violations, from the existing $100,000 per violation per day and $1 million per series of related violations.

Since 2008, Quarterman said the agency has proposed $21.6 million in civil penalties. She did not say how much of that has been collected.

Quarterman said she also favored reforms to eliminate all existing statutory exemptions for both natural gas and hazardous gathering lines. "Significant spills and incidents have occurred on gathering lines and removal of these exemptions would be consistent with PHMSA's long-standing effort to capture the remaining pipeline mileage that is currently unregulated, but may warrant regulation. Production facilities and flow lines would remain non-jurisdictional," she noted.

The House and Senate's efforts to reauthorize pipeline safety legislation come in the wake of the Sept. 9, 2010 explosion of the Pacific Gas and Electric line, which killed eight people, wounded dozens and destroyed a number of homes in San Bruno, CA (see Daily GPI, Dec. 20, 2010). The National Transportation Safety Board still is working to determine the cause of the blast.

In February a pipeline explosion in Allentown, PA, killed five people, including a four-month-old child (see Daily GPI, Feb. 11). The blast, which was apparently triggered by a "break" in UGI Corp.'s underground natural gas pipeline, affected a total of 47 properties, including 10 businesses, and forced more than 750 people to evacuate over a three-block area.

And in July 2010 a failure occurred in a 30-inch diameter Enbridge oil pipeline, releasing approximately 19,500 bbl of crude oil into a tributary creek of the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, MI.

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