Congresswoman Speier Calls for Improved Pipeline Safety: “PHMSA is a Toothless Tiger”

April 14, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo counties) demanded accountability from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in the face of serious revelations about their lax oversight of natural gas pipeline companies and regulators. Testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, she called for PHMSA to enforce and implement existing safety laws and laid out a framework for robust pipeline safety measures nationwide.

“It is clear to me that PHMSA does not have the teeth—or the will—to enforce pipeline safety in this country,” said Speier. “As we’ve seen in California, it is often powerless over state regulators. Even when it has crystal-clear authority, it still refuses to act. PHMSA is not only a toothless tiger, but one that has overdosed on Quaaludes and is passed out on the job.”

Following a push for improved safety regulations by Congresswoman Speier, Congress passed the Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2011, which eliminated the “grandfather clause” that had given operators a pass on gas transmission pipelines installed before adequate testing was required. According to this law, PHMSA was supposed to close the loophole within 18 months, but instead PHMSA has disregarded the statute for four years.

Meanwhile, ongoing revelations of poor management at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) underscore the need for heightened federal oversight. This week, an external auditor hired by the CPUC found that its gas safety enforcement efforts have, in many areas, actually gotten worse since the explosion in San Bruno. PHMSA has not been conducting adequate oversight of these state regulatory agencies. Despite PHMSA paying for 80 percent of the pipeline safety program’s costs, a crony culture developed between industry and state regulators—and PHMSA claims they can do nothing about it. Reports by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Department of Transportation Inspector General found its work to disorganized and lax, and have recommended major overhauls of PHMSA policies.

In her testimony, Congresswoman Speier demanded that PHMSA increase its oversight over state pipeline inspection agencies and enact the NTSB recommendations. She plans to introduce legislation to tighten pipeline safety requirements and increase PHMSA’s ability to ensure that state pipeline safety agencies are held accountable for enforcing safety rules.

In September 2010, a pipeline run by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. exploded in San Bruno, California, taking eight lives and leveling 38 homes. The force of the explosion was so great that it propelled a piece of pipe weighing 3,000 pounds for 100 feet. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation revealed that the explosion was caused by a defective weld and cobbled together pipe in a 1956 segment of the line, a portion of the line that was never adequately re-inspected after the pipe was put into the ground. Since then, natural gas pipeline explosions have continued across the country, including in Allentown, Pennsylvania (2011), Charleston, West Virginia (2012), and Harlem, New York City (2014). The toll of dead and injured is in the hundreds.

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