The fatal gasoline pipeline explosion that occurred October 31 – the second incident in six weeks involving Colonial Pipeline’s infrastructure in Shelby County – came on the heels of a report critical of the federal agency responsible for pipeline regulation and safety.
On Oct. 14, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General released an audit that concluded “insufficient guidance, oversight, and coordination hinder the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) full implementation of mandates and recommendations.”
PHMSA develops and enforces regulations for the “safe, reliable, and environmentally sound” operation of the nation’s pipeline transportation system and hazardous materials shipments.
The explosion this week caused one fatality and four serious injuries. It was the 35th fatality in the past 10 years that occurred during pipeline excavation, according to Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit industry watchdog. Colonial Pipeline said the incident happened when a trackhoe, a large type of ground excavator, hit the pipe. The crew was doing routine maintenance connected to the gasoline leak in September, which happened about five miles away.
Colonial has announced it will re-open the pipeline involved in the latest incident this Sunday (November 6).
Riverkeeper: ‘We do want to know what happened’
While the September gasoline leak was close enough to the Cahaba River to threaten it for a time, gasoline from the explosion on Monday is no threat to the river, a major source of water for the Birmingham area.
“Nothing from the explosion reached the river,” said Myra Crawford, executive director of the nonprofit Cahaba Riverkeeper. “We do want to know what happened, whether it’s a problem with equipment, training and experience of the (trackhoe) operator, or something else.”
She said her organization believes no pipeline is completely safe. “You can’t guarantee it won’t break or leak. We are against new pipelines because the (fossil fuel) industry is in decline,” Crawford said. “For existing pipe already in the ground, Colonial has several ways to monitor pressure and conditions inside their pipe, and fly over the rights of way to look for problems, but this can and will happen again.”
In fact, 135 excavation incidents involving pipelines carrying hazardous liquids have occurred over the last 10 years, according to Pipeline Safety Trust of Bellingham, WA. “That’s roughly one a month,” the nonprofit group’s executive director, Carl Weimer, said. The number is improving, he said, and stood “somewhat as a success story.”
While the cause of the gasoline pipeline explosion in Shelby County is undetermined as yet, Weimer said, human error is likely. “You have to be very careful when operating close to the line, or where the line is suspected to be,” he said.
Weimer said PHMSA has gotten better at meeting mandates and recommendations from Congress and from federal agencies such as Environmental Protection Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Government Accountability Office and others. “Some of the rules mandated five years ago still aren’t operational. But PHMSA has admitted this and has started working on it,” he said.
The agency’s audit stated that since 2005, PHMSA has implemented about two-thirds of Congressional mandates and recommendations from other agencies.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the federal agency charged with oversight of interstate transmission pipelines. It is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT), whose office of inspector general (OIG) issued the report last month faulting PHMSA for insufficient oversight and coordination, effectively delaying the implementation of new rules and recommendations.
Jim Hall, a former director of the National Transportation Safety Board, called the audit “more of the same for PHMSA, a continuation of past criticism.” The agency, he said, is not funded adequately.
“There has not been a strong oversight for pipeline safety for years,” he said. He told Politico last year that he doesn’t believe the agency is too understaffed to accomplish regulatory objectives, “they’ve just lacked the will to do so.”
The OIG review found that PHMSA, in not implementing some Congressional mandates and recommendations from NTSB, OIG, and Government Accounting Office, has delayed measures including requirements for pipeline operators to install automatic shutoff valves and to broaden inspection efforts.
Site of the Explosion
The pipeline where the explosion happened was put in operation in December 1964 and is made of steel pipe, according to Colonial. Hall said, “The age of the pipeline is a particular concern. They say pipe will last forever, but at some point Colonial is going to have to replace the majority of that pipe or it will continue to have problems like (the Shelby County incidents).”
Some southern states may have even more of a need to monitor old pipes, which comprise more than half of interstate transmission pipelines in the nation. “The deterioration is partly due to the clay soil in Alabama and some other states,” Hall said. Studies have shown that clay soil is an abnormally corrosive environment.
Having two major incidents in two months on the same pipeline in Alabama’s Shelby County has raised local concerns about continued safety of the aging infrastructure that supplies the nation’s oil, gas, natural gas, and distillates such as jet fuel.
This week four Alabama Riverkeeper groups called on pipeline operator, Colonial Pipeline Co., to be transparent about its plans for pipeline maintenance and upgrades. “This old pipeline may have other deficiencies, such as deterioration, cracks and leaks… It is time for spills, leaks and accidents from the Colonial pipeline to end in Alabama,” a Riverkeeper statement said.
Colonial had no public response to the statement, but Myra Crawford, executive director of the Cahaba Riverkeeper, said her organization found Colonial officials open to the proposal.