Lines of Fire

Amanda Smith was enjoying a weekend of fishing and camping with her extended family along the banks of the Pecos River in New Mexico on Aug. 19, 2000. Early that morning, a few family members had set out to catch some fish, taking their lanterns with them to the river.

But instead of waking to the smell of fish frying, Amanda awoke to her children’s screams. A corroded 50-year-old gas pipeline, which crossed the river next to the campground, had ruptured and sent a flaming fireball across the campground. Burning fuel rained down upon the campers. The fire was so hot it melted sand into glass and turned part of the concrete bridge into powder. Tents and sleeping bags turned to soup. The flames leapt 500 feet in the air, were visible from 30 miles away, and left a crater 86 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 20 feet deep.

Amanda Smith survived the fire only long enough to describe the horror of the scene to rescue workers. The explosion wiped out most of the Smith family, killing Amanda, her parents, her husband, her two kids, her brother and sister-in-law, their 22-month-old daughter and twin 6-month-old babies.

The New Mexico accident was just the latest in a string of horrific pipeline accidents over the past few years that have left hundreds of people dead or injured. Corroded pipes, operator errors, and outside damage are taking their toll on the nation’s aging pipeline infrastructure. The sprawling network of more than 2 million miles of pipe and 150,000 miles of underground tubes carries 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and about 14.4 billion barrels of hazardous liquids such as propane and petroleum each year, a figure likely to grow. The number of accidents is also on the rise.

The U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) has counted 6,377 accidents between 1986 and August 2001. These incidents caused 376 deaths, 1,699 injuries, $1,140,697,582 in property damage, and a gross loss of 2,777,205 barrels of various oil fuels. (OPS can’t quantify the loss of natural gas.)

Because of these accidents and the growing potential for new ones, safety experts and state officials have been pleading with OPS for years to mandate the kind of pipeline inspections that would have prevented the explosion in New Mexico. But OPS, a little-known agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), has routinely rebuffed suggestions that would increase enforcement of existing safety rules and dragged its feet on implementing new ones. More troubling, OPS has shown an unhealthy relationship with the industry that it regulates, which, incidentally, provides all of its budget and has a huge financial incentive to avoid regulation.

As a result, the existing regulatory structure leaks like a sieve, with virtually no government interference and few sanctions for those who violate the rules, even when they cause significant environmental damage. OPS had cited the owner of the pipeline that killed Amanda Smith and her family, the El Paso Energy Pipeline Group, for safety problems with its pipeline in Arizona in 1997, and again in 1999. But it took the deaths of 12 people before OPS really jumped into action. The agency is now seeking a $2.52 million civil fine against the El Paso Energy Pipeline Group for safety violations.

Pipeline operators do most of their own inspections and develop their own safety standards, and they’re not required to inspect regularly. And federal pipeline rules are so lax that, for instance, pipeline operators aren’t even required to close their pipeline spigots when they find leaks. And they have an incentive not to, given that their income depends on keeping those spigots open and flowing. Many of the nation’s pipelines aren’t regulated at all by the feds—such as gathering lines that take crude oil to refineries, which Congress exempted from OPS oversight. Most of those lines didn’t traverse heavily populated zones, so why bother protecting nature if nobody lives there?

“There are around 60,000 miles of unregulated pipelines and they leak like crazy,” says Bob Rackleff, a commissioner of Leon County, Fla., who has spearheaded the National Pipeline Reform Coalition to push tougher regulation.

It generally takes a major explosion for the government to get involved. “There is almost no enforcement,” says Lois Epstein, an engineer who followed pipeline safety for Environmental Defense in Washington, D.C., for 13 years. “Companies decide the appropriateness of their own lines with no federal standards.”

Even a horrific accident, though, doesn’t seem to be enough to spur OPS—or Congress—to make meaningful change to protect the public from dangerous pipelines, which are increasingly turning up under heavily populated areas. Just a year before the New Mexico explosion, in June 1999, in Bellingham, Wash., Wade King and his buddy Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, hiked down to a local creek where they found a lighter. As 10-year-old boys will do, they started to play with it.

Unbeknownst to the boys, a 33-year-old pipeline carrying jet fuel, gasoline, and other petroleum products lay directly underneath the boys’ neighborhood. It had already ruptured, releasing an estimated 236,000 gallons of gasoline into the tributaries of Puget Sound, Bellingham Bay, and the boys’ fishing creek.

A spark from the lighter turned the entire creek bed into a tunnel of fire, boiling the fish in its water. The boys jumped into the creek to escape, but the creek itself was on fire. By the time King’s father ran down to rescue them, the boys had lost all of their clothes and most of their skin to the fire. Both died shortly after being airlifted to a burn center. Eighteen-year-old Liam Wood was also overcome with gas vapors while fishing. He fell into the creek and drowned.

Run by the Olympic Pipeline Company, Inc., the very same pipeline had leaked at least 47 other times since 1965. So far, the spill has been attributed to “mechanical failure” in the ruptured line, but the cause is still under investigation and points to other wrongdoing by the pipeline operator. Employees for the firm took the Fifth to avoid answering questions about just what went wrong.

The Bellingham accident did result in some action by the government. After two years of investigation, on September 13, 2001, the federal government indicted the Olympic Pipeline Company and three officials on charges of violating the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. The case marks the first time the act resulted in criminal indictments. But tellingly, the impetus for the prosecution came not from OPS but from the Justice Department.

The accident and the ensuing investigation received widespread media attention, and brought calls from Congress for more regulation of the pipeline industry. The investigation also prompted unprecedented criticism of OPS. During the investigation of the pipeline explosion, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman James Hall said, “We believe [OPS’] lack of action continues to place the American people at risk.”

Indeed, for years Congress and the NTSB had been asking OPS to require pipeline operators to radically improve inspections of equipment and training of employees who monitor the pipelines. But OPS has dragged its feet. OPS’ record in adopting safety recommendations makes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) look like the gold standard—even after September 11.

In fact, OPS has the slowest and lowest record of any federal agency at complying with NTSB recommendations over the last 30 years. The agency complies with fewer than 70 percent of the NTSB safety recommendations, including many of those that would have prevented the accidents at Bellingham and New Mexico, according to Hall. (By comparison, the FAA complies with about 82 percent.)

For instance, NTSB wanted the pipeline office to require operators to perform their own inspections or tests in 1987. In 1992, Congress mandated that OPS require such inspections by 1995. But OPS only started requiring them for large liquid pipeline operators (those with 500 miles or more) last February—almost six years after the legislative deadline. (By law, government agencies must respond to but not necessarily implement NTSB suggestions.)

OPS hasn’t even been able to keep up with the rules it’s required by law to implement and enforce. As of May 2000, OPS had not implemented 22 statutory requirements and 39 of NTSB’s safety recommendations—some going back to the 1980s, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO). A year later, GAO looked again and found OPS still hadn’t met 16 of the legal requirements. Meanwhile, OPS had only complied with one of NTSB’s outstanding recommendations and hasn’t met six new ones issued since May 2000. OPS says it plans to comply with more NTSB regulations within another year, while it says others are so old they have become obsolete.

Stacey Gerard, OPS Associate Administrator, says that rather than respond to each of the proposals on a piecemeal basis, OPS is developing a long-term plan to deal with NTSB’s concerns, a strategy she feels will ultimately be more effective.

But until some of those new rules come into effect, pipeline operators don’t even have to inspect their lines regularly, let alone have the government do it or prescribe standards. And the new rules aren’t exactly crushing. Once they take effect, pipeline operators will have a whopping seven years before they have to perform a baseline inspection (three and a half years for “high-risk” lines), and then they wouldn’t be required to inspect more than once every five years unless the baseline inspection found a problem. And those rules only apply to large liquid operators. Inspection rules for small pipelines and gas operators are still being finalized.

The impact of this slow pace of oversight is clear: Despite all the publicity after the Bellingham accident and the calls for improved safety and better inspections, pipeline accidents have only gotten worse. According to OPS’s annual figures (which are subject to change as more data come in), pipelines in 2000 suffered their worst year in terms of causing economic damage—$156,925,184 worth to be exact—nearly double the $86,856,82 OPS totaled for 1999. (Two major spills caused the blip.)

And those figures understate the problem. Companies aren’t required to file reports on pipelines not subject to federal regulation. Given that the companies stand to incur fines for safety and environmental violations stemming from spills, they don’t report them all. When NTSB investigates or someone sues, evidence often shows the oil companies underreport the problem, usually by understating the property damage. (The companies usually count mainly the damage to their own property.)

OPS also can’t know of all the leaks and damage because operators don’t have to report spills of less than 21,000 gallons (50 barrels). Bob Rackleff recalls that a now-defunct 85-mile pipeline running through the Florida Everglades between the 1960s and 1990s spilled 54 documented times, as reported to state agencies. But OPS files listed only a single leak.

Jim Pates has experienced OPS’ indifference to pipeline safety and environmental concerns firsthand. Pates is the city attorney in Fredricksburg, Va., which he says has “the dubious distinction of having twice lost our entire water supply because of pipeline accidents.” In 1980 and 1989, the Colonial Pipeline ruptured 30 or 40 miles up the Rappahannock River. Each time, hairline fractures grew over time until the pipe burst.

“After the second time, we decided to take a serious look at things and see what we could do,” Pates recalls. “We saw OPS was not terribly concerned. They admitted to us after the 1989 break that environmental protection was not their thing.”

Though Fredricksburg lost water for about a week each time, the pipeline still runs. OPS ordered Colonial to reduce pressure in the line, but still won’t make the company fix it and Pates fears another crack could cause another water outage. “From all my years of being involved in government, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an agency any more beholden to the industry it is supposed to be regulating,” he says.

Part of the problem is that Congress simply has never given OPS the resources to do its job properly. OPS employs only 97 people, including 55 inspectors—about one per state and territory, or one nose per 36,000 miles of mostly hard-to-notice underground tubing—and even fewer experts to pursue enforcement when it finds problems. When asked by NTSB whether the agency had the capacity to enforce the rules it’s writing, Clinton administration Research and Special Programs Administration Chief Kelley Coyner, who oversees OPS at DOT, replied “We do not. With 55 inspectors on hand, we are not currently in the position of reviewing these plans on a two-year basis to ensure compliance.”

With so few resources, OPS has relied on the industry to perform its own inspections and develop its own safety plans. Rather than fining operators who run afoul of safety and environmental rules, OPS is now shifting its emphasis toward helping them find and fix problems. There’s plenty of evidence that this all-carrot-no-stick strategy will do little to protect the public.

Back in 1990, OPS assessed fines in almost half its enforcement actions. By 1998, that figure had plummeted to about 4 percent. Not surprisingly, over that same period, the number of deadly accidents has continued to rise. GAO reported last year that the number of “major pipeline accidents” (defined as those causing a casualty or at least $50,000 in property damage) rose an average of 4 percent a year between 1989 and 1998. OPS, however, attributes the increase to more lines, more flow, and more population near the lines.

The need for better pipeline oversight is growing—the pipeline infrastructure, to say the least, has reached senior-citizen status. About a quarter of it was laid 50 years ago or more. Sometimes the only way to measure flow is to count what goes in and what comes out, which doesn’t account for volume or temperature changes or what might remain in the line. As a result, leaks on some of the older and smaller lines can continue indefinitely before anyone notices. Even detection systems of the 1980s are obsolete.

OPS official Byron Coy testified to NTSB that “fundamental systems that were installed in the ’60s typically had useful lives of nearly 20 years, but the pace of technological advancement has caused some systems that were installed even in the ’90s to be considered mature. Computer systems employed in many large pipeline control centers are very sophisticated, yet there are many small pipelines across the country that are virtually operated by hand.”

Without the big stick of the federal government, pipeline owners have little incentive to upgrade their safety inspection systems. To fill the vacuum left by OPS, GAO recommended last year that OPS get states more involved in regulating pipelines to better leverage federal resources, but so far, OPS hasn’t done much on that front. OPS already relies on 380 state inspectors who do most of the work that the companies don’t do themselves, and states can use federal matching funds to regulate pipelines, but OPS has recently denied many states’ requests to do so, and it hasn’t been able to provide authorized matching funds.

That places the pipeline problem squarely in the hands of Congress, which has dabbled with it since the tragedies in New Mexico and Bellingham. But so far, Congress hasn’t been able to pass even inadequate legislation. In 2000, the Senate passed pipeline safety legislation but since the House didn’t move on it before Congress adjourned, the legislation died. Early in February of 2001, the Senate unanimously passed a similar measure but the House still hasn’t scheduled hearings.

House Republicans possess plenty of incentives for not wanting to put clamps on the pipeline industry. In the 2000 election cycle, the oil and gas industry gave $33,489,164 in campaign contributions, 78 percent to Republicans and making the industry the 9th-largest contributor by trade out of more than 80.

And who got more money than any other House candidate? Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who comes from a state with the largest number of pipelines. He got $133,600 for his last campaign from an industry that doesn’t want the regulatory oversight the Democrats on his committee favored. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) of the Highways and Transit panel, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and House Subcommittee on Energy and Power Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) all have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries.

The money has paid off. Just one example of the industry’s clout: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill to force oil tanker operators to pay for cleaning up the messes they make, exempts pipelines. Now, if an oil tanker explodes, the company has to clean up the spill. But a pipeline owner doesn’t have to.

There is legislation afoot that would tighten federal oversight of the pipeline industry. In the transportation appropriations bill awaiting Bush’s signature, OPS got funding for 26 more professionals it wanted, including inspectors and legal staff.

In addition, a Senate-passed bill, brainchild of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would require pipeline operators to develop safety plans, evaluate risks in heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas, and educate the public about safety matters. The Senate Democrats’ national energy strategy bill would also give DOT $3 million and five years to develop a research program to improve pipeline safety.

In the House, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) introduced a tougher measure that would allow states to regulate pipelines if DOT approves their plans, and give them about $20 million a year to enforce them. Meanwhile, Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) introduced a measure that would call for government—not industry—inspection and allow for a state role.

If these measures were backed with significant funding, they could go a long way to improving pipeline safety, but they still leave critical areas unaddressed, particularly the structural issues that make OPS so ineffective, such as the fact that the agency resides in a department mostly concerned with moving people rather than with enhancing safety and protecting the environment.

Though the federal government regulates pipelines because of environmental hazards, DOT remains in charge of oversight—not the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or even the Department of Energy (DOE), where expertise in preventing pollution and harvesting safe energy lie. That’s because Congress established OPS before it created EPA or DOE and put it in DOT because product is transported across state lines.

The current legislative proposals also don’t reconcile the conflict of who should pay for regulation. Right now, the oil and gas industries pay for their own enforcement. Though Congress must approve disbursements every year, OPS’ budget comes mainly from two funds: the Pipeline Safety Fund, paid by interstate pipeline operators’ user fees, and the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which comes from spill damage recovery payments—another incentive for the industry to keep mum about spills.

Until these underlying issues are resolved, it’s likely that the pipeline industry will continue to police itself, and innocent people like Amanda Smith will continue to die. It took the deaths of 3,000 people on September 11 to get the FAA to force decades-old safety regulations on the airline industry. We can only hope it won’t take such mass casualties for the government to do the same for our pipelines. Too many people have died already

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