A recent audit of pipeline safety oversight by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) found “comprehensive and detailed” inspection procedures but also room for improvement. In response, RRC said it has already been working to address areas of concern raised by the audit.

Four areas of RRC pipeline oversight, in particular, could be improved, according to Texas State Auditor John Keel. They are:

“The commission should increase the number of inspections it performs of the pipeline systems ranked as the highest priority for inspections,” Keel’s office said. “The commission inspected only 65% of the pipeline systems ranked as highest priority in its 2010 annual pipeline inspection work plan.”

Increasing the number of inspections of pipeline systems ranked as the highest priority in the audit. RRC in response said it “has begun evaluating the pipeline inspection scheduling process to determine the feasibility of increasing the number of Priority 1 system inspections each year with current staffing.”

According to year-old data on the RRC website, the agency regulates103,014 miles of natural gas distribution pipelines; 34,346 miles of natural gas transmission and storage pipeline; and 3,283 miles of natural gas gathering lines. This is in addition to regulation of pipelines carrying other commodities.

The audit found that the RRC from September 2007 through April 2011 received 37,122 pipeline damage incident reports and cited 11,527 violations. It assessed $4,242,958 in penalties and collected $3,420,133. However, the RRC needs to do better at wrapping up cases completely, it found.

“In January 2010 the commission closed a backlog of incident reports without completing an investigation to determine the cause of the incident, as required by its procedures,” it said. “Because the commission did not retain sufficient documentation, auditors could not determine how many of the 13,649 total incidents the commission closed in 2010 were closed without a complete investigation.”

In response, RRC said, “The damage prevention program focus is on incidents caused mainly by excavation damage, such as when a contractor does not call 811 to have an underground pipeline marked. The Commission believes that damage prevention procedures have been followed. For some incident investigations that did not involve injuries, staff cited violations but did not assess penalties. Nevertheless, training has been conducted with staff to address any possible alleged deficiencies and to take corrective action as needed to ensure compliance with procedures.”

The RRC could do a better job prioritizing systems for inspection, according to the audit, which found “errors and omissions” in work plans. “While those errors and omissions were isolated to certain processes or types of pipelines, they could result in the commission not inspecting some pipelines,” it said. It is important to note, however, that this risk is mitigated by federal and state pipeline safety regulations that require pipeline operators to inspect and monitor all of their own systems.”

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