On September 9, 2010, a poorly-constructed natural gas pipeline operated by Pacific Oil Gas and Electric ruptured in a suburban neighborhood of San Bruno, California, causing an explosion that sent flames hundreds of feet into the air, leveled dozens of homes and killed eight people. Less than two months earlier, a broken pipeline operated by the Canadian energy company Enbridge spilled more than 1.1 million gallons of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, sparking the largest and most expensive pipeline cleanup effort in United States history.
In March, a ruptured Exxon Mobil pipeline spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar sands oil into a residential neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, contaminating the community and nearby watersheds.
These pipeline disasters made major headlines, but each year about 250 significant pipeline accidents cause explosions, pollution, property damage, injury or death across the country. Watchdogs say the federal regulatory agency in charge of pipeline safety is asleep at the wheel.
Hundreds of Pipeline Accidents, Few Inspections
Since 2006, federal and state regulators have inspected about one-fifth of the 2.6 million miles of propane, gas and oil pipelines that crisscross the United States, according to data released this week by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group has released records obtained from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that oversees pipeline safety.
Private operators inspected an additional 132,300 miles of pipeline during the same time period, but PHMSA could not say whether these inspections were independently reviewed, according to PEER.
“At the current rate, most of our oil and gas pipeline network will not be inspected in this generation," said PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass.
Speaking on background, a PHMSA spokesman said that a majority of the nation's pipelines - about 2.2 million miles of natural gas distribution lines - fall under the jurisdiction of state agencies, but PHMSA awards up to 80 percent of funding for state safety programs. The federal agency's main inspection responsibility, he said, is to inspect large transmission lines that cross state lines, but it does partner with state inspectors.
A lawsuit filed by the city of San Francisco following the brutal San Bruno disaster, however, points out that federal law places the ultimate responsibility for pipeline safety and oversight of state regulators in the hands of the Department of Transportation and its enforcement arm, PHMSA.
From 2006 to 2012, there were an average of 267 "significant incidents" each year at pipelines in the US that caused thousands of dollars in property damage, fire, explosions, injury or loss of life, according to PMHSA data. During the same period, pipeline accidents have injured a total of 412 people and killed 96 others.
Regulators report 119 significant incidents so far this year, along with five fatalities and 16 injuries.
In about 300 instances since 2006, federal regulators failed to perform follow-up inspections of pipelines that suffered problems such as a spill, explosion or breakdown, according to PEER. Despite these figures, the group points out that a 2012 PHMSA report to Congress is less than one page long and expresses no desire to increase the number of pipeline inspectors working on the ground.
“PHMSA is a sleepy, industry-dominated agency that tries to remain obscure by doing as little as possible," Douglass said. "Its minimalist approach to pipeline regulation means several eco-catastrophes a year is business as usual."
San Bruno Explosion Fallout
The PEER watchdogs are not the only ones who are frustrated with PHMSA.
In February 2012, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued PHMSA and accused the agency of having "abjectly failed" to enforce federal pipeline safety standards for a decade prior to the lethal explosion in San Bruno. PHMSA, the city argues, failed to properly oversee California regulators and implement recommendations made by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) after it finished an extensive investigation into the deadly fire.
"One of the most troubling findings to emerge in the 18 months since the San Bruno tragedy is that regulators were either asleep at the switch or far too cozy with the industry they’re supposed to regulate," Herrera said at the time. "And in the case of PHMSA, the agency is still asleep at the switch."
The lawsuit cited the NTSB report on the San Bruno disaster, issued in August 2011, which found that PHMSA and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had "placed a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing - to the detriment of public safety." NTSB determined that CPUC failed to verify that Pacific Oil and Gas was operating its pipelines safely, and PHMSA did not provide proper oversight of CPUC.
The NTSB issued a series of recommendations for regulatory reforms to PHMSA following its investigations into the San Bruno and Enbridge incidents, but PHMSA has yet to implement a majority of them. The recommendations, PPER points out, could prevent another disaster like the San Bruno explosion and include performing audits of operator safety plans and requiring automatic shut-off valves or remote-control valves in "high consequence areas" such as residential neighborhoods.
In a background statement, a PHMSA spokesman said that the agency works to address NTSB recommendations immediately, but it can take "some time" to issue new regulatory rules.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco city attorney is expected to challenge PHMSA's attempts to dismiss the city's lawsuit in a federal appeals court later this year.