Poorly maintained gas pipelines put increasing numbers at risk

Original Reporting | By David Cay Johnston |

The entire approach to pipeline safety stands in stark contrast to the way government and industry deal with airline safety issues, where the focus is on preventing crashes through the use of engineering, analysis and data collection, says Rick Kessler, a pipeline engineer who worked on pipeline issues as a Capitol Hill staffer and is now a volunteer vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Kessler said that, if the Federal Aviation Administration operated on the same rules as PHMSA, “I wouldn’t get on a plane.”

what do the documents show?

Paul Blackburn runs Plains Justice, a public interest law firm in Vermillion, South Dakota, a town on the border with Nebraska. Blackburn, who previously worked as an energy regulatory lawyer in Washington, is engaged in several public interest actions aimed at dealing with damage from pipeline ruptures and to make a proposed new pipeline from Canada into the United States safer.

He obtained some pipeline company safety planning reports under the Freedom of Information Act. Blackburn said he expected to read detailed emergency response and evacuation plans, including emergency contact numbers and an assessment of firefighting resources. In fact, “I found there was almost nothing in the file, it was pathetic,” Blackburn said, adding that the files he reviewed show that “the government basically rubber stamps industry documents” with little to no evidence it questioned, much less challenged, anything the companies proposed.

The San Bruno incident demonstrated how reliance on manual safety valves, in buildings where only a few pipeline company workers have keys, hinders the ability to quickly stop the flow of gas that is feeding a fire. The National Transportation Safety Board had previously urged wider use of automatic shut off valves, as well as closer spacing between valves, but its recommendations have gone nowhere because of the costs and concerns about the reliability of automated valves given the design of the systems of which they are a part.

The PHSMA administrator, Cynthia Quarterman, is among those who come from the pipeline industry. She was an outside lawyer for Enbridge, owner of a pipeline that dumped nearly a million gallons of fuel into delicate Michigan marshes last July.

Quarterman, who has recused herself from Enbridge matters, called for tightening pipeline regulations after the San Bruno blast. “We inherited a program that suffered from almost a decade of neglect,” Quarterman told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last spring. “We have set a new course.”


Safety waivers and notices

The federal government has given a small but growing share of these lines waivers from the safety rules, in some cases allowing high-pressure pipelines to operate when corrosion has eaten through more than 28 percent of the pipeline wall.

Federal officials say that the waivers do not compromise safety, and are used mostly in areas where pigs cannot be used to inspect pipelines internally. They add that operators are required to inform customers of the presence of pipelines. 

But Theo Theofanous, a professor of mechanical and chemical engineering at UC Santa Barbara and director of its Center for Risk Studies and Safety, said the rules on corrosion and other damage to pipeline walls are not nearly stringent enough and run unnecessary risks. “Safety factors are employed to provide a margin of safety against unexpected causes, Theofanous said. “It is not good engineering practice to ‘use them’ against known deterioration of the structure, so that effectively we end up with a lower safety factor,” he added.

Theofanous noted that a “safety factor of 2 is not uncommon in situations involving high pressures, even if the consequences of failure are modest,” but permitted corrosion levels in the transmission pipeline industry routinely compromise that safety factor even before the occurrence of unexpected events for which one wants to have the full margin of safety available.

That PHMSA may have traditionally been more interested in maintaining public calm than in establishing public vigilance is reflected in its euphemistic language. PHMSA refers to the area of certain death in a catastrophic failure not as a blast zone, but as a “high consequence area.” The same term is applied to swamps and marshes, where an oil spill would cause severe environmental damage.

A sampling of gas pipeline notices sent to property owners shows that they read more like promotional brochures for the pipeline industry than alerts, touting the idea that pipelines are safe except when excavators carelessly puncture pipelines with backhoes and similar equipment.

The euphemistic “high consequence area” warning is typically a single paragraph buried deep in the pamphlet which makes no mention of almost certain death in the burn area.

How effective are these notices? And how well do pipeline operators fulfill their duty to educate first responders about pipeline locations and hazards?

PHMSA has no idea. The agency has not undertaken any studies, surveys or created focus groups to determine if the notices are effective in warning people or in altering their behavior. Further, it has no mechanism to insure that people other than property owners — renters, workers, shoppers, children in schools and playgrounds — are aware they are in the fatal blast zone of high-pressure pipelines.


Industry safety spending

The website of the American Gas Association states that the most recent annual figure for safety-related spending was $6 billion nationwide. But no detailed breakdown is provided on how much of that spending is for regulatory hearings, public notices and the training of first responders, as opposed to pipeline inspections and improvements. Indeed, when Remapping Debate asked an industry spokesperson how much the natural gas transmission pipeline industry spends on maintenance, the spokesperson was not sure. Christine Sames, a petroleum engineer who is vice president for operations and engineering at the American Gas Association, said, “I’m trying to recall if anyone pulls together that statistic.”

Sames said she believes that industry maintenance spending over the last “decade or two” has been about $7 billion annually. If spending has in fact been constant at that level, it would represent a major decrease in real dollars because of the effect of inflation. If constant since 1990, the erosion due to inflation would be 40 percent; even if flat since only 2000, the erosion would represent 21 percent. And that calculation does not take into account the existence of additional pipelines to inspect or the increased age of existing pipelines.

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