News Articles Featured | New York Times | September 09, 2011
DENVER — This summer, an Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying oil across Montana burst suddenly, soiling the swollen Yellowstone River with an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude just weeks after a company inspection and federal review had found nothing seriously wrong.
And in the Midwest, a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., once teeming with swimmers and boaters, remains closed nearly 14 months after an Enbridge Energy pipeline hemorrhaged 843,000 gallons of oil that will cost more than $500 million to clean up.
While investigators have yet to determine the cause of either accident, the spills have drawn attention to oversight of the 167,000-mile system of hazardous liquid pipelines crisscrossing the nation.
The little-known federal agency charged with monitoring the system and enforcing safety measures — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves, according to federal reports, an examination of agency data and interviews with safety experts.
They portray an agency that rarely levies fines and is not active enough in policing the aging labyrinth of pipelines, which has suffered thousands of significant hazardous liquid spills over the past two decades.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the pipeline agency, acknowledges weaknesses in the program and is asking Congress to pass legislation that would increase penalties for negligent operators and authorize the hiring of additional inspectors. That may be a tough sell in a Congress averse to new spending and stricter regulation.
“We need to know with great certainty that inspections and replacements have been done in a timely way that will prevent these kinds of spills from happening,” he said.
Federal records show that although the pipeline industry reported 25 percent fewer significant incidents from 2001 through 2010 than in the prior decade, the amount of hazardous liquids being spilled, though down, remains substantial. There are still more than 100 significant spills each year — a trend that dates back more than 20 years. And the percentage of dangerous liquids recovered by pipeline operators after a spill has dropped considerably in recent years.
The industry, however, believes the current system works and points with pride to what it considers a record of improvement.
“Data shows that releases from pipelines have declined over the last decade as the result of stringent regulation and the industry’s continued commitment to safety,” wrote Peter Lidiak, pipeline director for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, in an e-mailed response.
Throwing more resources and money at the problem may not be the answer for the tiny agency, because there remain deeper concerns about how it works, especially its reluctance to mandate safety improvements or to level meaningful fines for wrongdoing.
Such concerns come at a critical time for the agency. The State Department last month gave a provisional green light to a controversial 1,661-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas, called Keystone XL, that will carry a trickier form of crude — and fall under the agency’s purview. And a just-released National Transportation Safety Board report on a natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that last year cost eight people their lives, characterized the agency’s regulatory practices as lax and inadequate. In the report, the safety board urged the Transportation Department to go back and audit many of the pipeline agency’s safety and enforcement policies.
An analysis of federal reports and safety documents by The New York Times suggests that while the agency performs better than it did 10 years ago, it still struggles to safeguard a transport network laced with risks.
For example, the agency requires companies to focus their inspections on only the 44 percent of the nation’s land-based liquid pipelines that could affect high consequence areas — those near population centers or considered environmentally delicate — which leaves thousands of miles of lines loosely regulated and operating essentially on the honor system. Meanwhile, budget limits and attrition have left the agency with 118 inspectors — 17 shy of what federal law authorizes.
Pipeline operators, critics argue, have too much autonomy over their lines, and too much wiggle room when it comes to carrying out important safeguards, like whether to install costly but crucial automated shut-off valves.