Clouded Vision

This story, Taxpayer Funded Horror at Standing Rock, came across my desk today.  Here’s the link:

There has to be a better way: to make decisions, to spend scarce tax dollars, to treat each other.  This is horrific on so many levels.  For those of you concerned that these events or this story are outside the bounds of what we should be concerned with, here’s a reminder of the vision statement of the Trust, a document that was written after the Bellingham pipeline explosion destroyed any public trust in institutions responsible for pipeline safety. In the continuing reports coming out of Standing Rock, this vision seems at least as far away as it must have seemed in 1999.  We have to do better.


A Vision for Our Communities

We See:

  • Communities where residents feel safe from the hazards of energy infrastructure,
  • Communities where residents trust their government to protect them from hazards,
  • Government authorities that are proactive and innovative in their approaches to accident prevention,
  • Energy production, distribution and consumption that is consistent with sustainable development principles,
  • Energy and utility industries that are partners in promoting community safety and environmental protection . . . .


February Friday food for thought

A little February Friday food for thought.

As most of you know, we scan news providers for stories about pipeline safety, pipeline incidents, pipeline regulations, for our listserv.  Jaxon Vanderbeken, now a reporter with the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, covered the San Bruno explosion and all of the hearings, lawsuits, and political fallout for the San Francisco Chronicle for years.  (Another well-deserved hat tip to him…)  So because I followed Jaxon, some of the news alerts I see are things that Jaxon is now covering.  He’s been covering the debacle surrounding the Millenium towers in San Francisco for many months now – the construction of a very expensive new high rise in downtown that is now sinking and tilting towards a neighboring tower.  A pretty clear case of at least one, or perhaps a whole series of mistakes.  

The news alert that came across my desk today is about a hearing and the testimony of a civil engineer who wrote a letter in 2006 about the now-suspect foundation to the effect that “it meets the requirements of the code.” (  It brings to mind what the public frequently hears from pipeline operators after an incident: “but we construct and operate in compliance with the code.”  In both cases, there are major public safety issues: a falling down building in a major metropolitan area; and a failed pipeline.  The engineer testified that he stands by the letter: the foundation design met the code.  It’s just that no one asked him whether it would actually work to hold up the building. (I’m paraphrasing.)

In recent litigation, pipeline operators have tried to raise a defense that PHMSA can’t hit them with a civil penalty just because there was an incident.  The pipeline safety code isn’t a strict liability code, they argued. Just because there was an incident doesn’t mean we violated the code.  The questions this raises for me are these:  Absent some third party damage, shouldn’t a pipeline constructed, operated and maintained in compliance with the code be capable of keeping the product in the pipe? Don’t you want compliance with the building code to mean that the foundation will actually work to hold the building up?   If compliance with the pipeline safety code doesn’t already mean the stuff stays in the pipe, shouldn’t it?  

Enjoy your weekend. 

Welcoming our new Outreach Manager


This week we welcome our new Outreach Manager, Kate Blystone.  Or we could say we’re welcoming her back, since in 2000, she was a college intern for Safe Bellingham, the community organization that preceded the formation of the Pipeline Safety Trust.  

In her new role, she will respond to requests for assistance from the public, assist with maintaining the Trust’s listservs, and develops programs designed to educate and involve citizens in pipeline safety issues and initiatives. One of her first tasks will be to complete the 2016 review of state pipeline safety websites for improvements in the transparency of information available to the public.  

Before joining the Trust, Kate worked for fifteen years as a public engagement specialist, land use planner and issue advocate for nonprofit organizations and private consulting firms across Washington, as well as a county planning department. She graduated from Western Washington University with a liberal arts degree, and from Eastern Washington University with a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) and an emphasis in small town planning.


Sixth Anniversary Thoughts on the Enbridge Spill in Marshall Michigan; comment opportunity

July 25, 2016

Six years ago today, Line 6b, part of Enbridge’s Lakehead Pipeline System, failed in Talmadge Creek, near Marshall, Michigan. It wasn’t until six years ago tomorrow, July 26 and three work shifts later that Enbridge’s control center and on-site staff figured out that what they had hoped was a column separation causing a pressure change in the pipe was in fact a rupture of the pipe that resulted in the country’s largest onshore oil spill, requiring a billion dollar multiyear clean-up effort, a record-setting pipeline safety penalty, a Corrective Action Order, including appointment of a third party auditor, being imposed on the entire Lakehead system, and now, a second-largest-ever Clean Water Act penalty being levied in a proposed consent decree between the Environmental Protection Agency and Enbridge (in all its many personalities: Enbridge Inc., Enbridge Energy Partners, etc.). The proposed Consent Decree also includes a number of operational constraints on the Lakehead system, including a permanent injunction from ever using “old” line 6b again, and a series of other measures to improve the system and the organization’s response capacity, like the production of a leak response report following the testing of a set of leak response methods.

Two years ago, we wrote another edition of the Smart Pig, describing the spill, including an excerpt from the NTSB report, describing the clean up, the replacement of Line 6b, and the continuing upheaval in the lives of everyone affected by the spill. We also pointed out that of the many recommendations and shortcomings that the NTSB identified in its report, precious few have been resolved.

Unfortunately, very little appears to have changed in these past two years. Fully six years after the spill and four years after the NTSB issued the recommendations, several critical recommendations remain to be resolved:

1) While a proposed rule on the safety of hazardous liquid pipelines has been proposed, it is not yet final, and there is no certainty about what any final rule will contain and the extent to which it will be responsive to the NTSB recommendations about cracks and their management and repair, about leak detection, about discovery of anomalies, and the like.

2) An audit of PHMSA’s implementation of spill response planning requirements by the Secretary’s office began in 2014, two years after the recommendation was made. As of the spring of 2016, the audit is “complete but undergoing internal administrative review”, as it has been for several months now. There have been changes in the program in staffing and review procedures, but almost entirely out of the view of the public: no changes to the spill planning rules have been proposed, no public announcements or advisory bulletins about changes in agency expectations for spill plans, no indication that the coordination recommended by the NTSB between PHMSA and EPA and the Coast Guard to more closely align PHMSA’s rules and processes with the other agencies’ has occurred, and little, if any, public discussion about assigning more resources to the spill planning section and what that might mean for the public or operators.  

3) The public still has no inkling about any follow-up on the assignment of a third party auditor on the Lakehead System under the PHMSA Corrective Action Order. We don’t know who it is/was, what they found, whether any changes were made in Enbridge’s governing plans and policies or behavior as a result of the auditor’s presence. And because of that lack of information, we also can’t know how many, if any, of the provisions in the Consent Decree are complete duplications of what may be required of Enbridge under the CAO. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tying things up in the nice box with a pretty bow that is a consent decree, but the public deserves to know how much of the decree imposes new obligations on Enbridge and how much is existing obligations Enbridge is under elsewhere that are just being listed in this decree.

4) In a recommendation the Board reiterated from the investigation into PG&E’s rupture and explosion in San Bruno, CA, they recommended that PHMSA require operators to provide system specific information to local governments and first responders. PHMSA has yet to put forward any regulatory proposal to respond to this recommendation.

PHMSA and the industry still have significant work to do to accomplish the changes recommended by the NTSB as a result of this failure.

In an Inside Climate News article covering the announcement of the Consent Decree, I was quoted as saying that no fine would be big enough to un-do the damage that was done by the spill: to the river and its environment, to its neighbors, to their health and well being.   Our Executive Director, Carl Weimer added that the Trust would have liked the fine to be substantially larger. Like any monetary award for a non-monetary loss, whether the destruction of a river or the loss of a family member, financial penalties are by their nature always insufficient, whether as recompense or punishment. They are, however, what our legal system allows injured individuals, families and society to extract from wrong-doers. The exception to that is in the context of negotiated settlements like consent decrees where the parties can agree to certain changed behaviors or to pay for things that aren’t really the subject of the legal dispute.

And that’s where the Enbridge consent decree gets mixed reviews, as far as I’m concerned. On the positive side, it includes some testing and reporting obligations on the part of Enbridge with respect to Line 5 – a pair of hazardous liquid pipelines running under the Straits of Mackinac in the Great Lakes – that may otherwise not have been accomplished for many months or years, if at all. (The existence of those lines in that location is the poster child for a massive improvement in the pipeline siting legal scheme for hazardous liquid pipelines – because who thought that was a good idea? Two Great Lakes, both heavily used for recreation, drinking water and transportation; ice covered in the winter and terrific currents in the Straits all year long.) See today’s blog by our board member Jeff Insko for concerns about these Line 5 provisions specifically along with others that he shares with us.

The decree also prohibits the future use of the “old” Line 6b, a resolution that lays to rest a nagging concern of hundreds of landowners along that route who have lived through the spill, the integrity digs, the new installation of a second, larger pipe, and the reclamation of their properties, many times in an unsatisfactory manner. It is a good thing for them and for the environment to ensure that the old line is not used again.

The decree also requires some leak detection testing and reporting, that if done correctly and with sufficient public access to the results, has the potential to move forward the creation of performance standards for leak detection in PHMSA’s administrative rules, a process that seems otherwise at a standstill.  Without public access to the reports and results, this provision loses significant value.

The decree falls short in three areas in particular:

1). At some point, the Department of Justice and EPA chose not to file criminal charges under the Clean Water Act, a decision likely based on some assessment of the cost of litigation, but one that has not been explained by either agency. According to EPA’s website, the elements of a criminal act under the CWA are met when a someone negligently or knowingly discharges oil or a hazardous substance into a water of the United States/upon adjoining shorelines/into the contiguous zone in a harmful quantity. The largest inland oil spill in the country surely qualifies as a harmful quantity. The spill into the waters of the U.S. is not in doubt, as both Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River qualify. And so the only other element to be proven is “negligently or knowingly.” Let me remind you how the Chairwoman of the NTSB described the failure:

This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “Despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline, for more than 17 hours and through three shifts they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures.”

So how knowing or negligent does the next operator have to be before EPA and Justice decide to file criminal charges? Sometimes decisions are made not to criminally prosecute and there are good reasons. Perhaps there are good reasons in this case. If so, EPA and Justice owe it to the public to tell us what they are, because otherwise the message to the next operator is clear that no behavior, no decision, no failure to act is bad enough to warrant a criminal charge under the Clean Water Act.

2) The decree “requires” the replacement of Line 3, a capital project that Enbridge has planned for several/many years, and that is the subject of significant controversy in Minnesota as to whether and where it should be built. The decree gives no background information to the public on why this requirement is included, but it certainly increases the nominal value of the total “penalties” to be paid by Enbridge under the decree, making it appear at first blush as if many tens of millions of dollars more is being required of Enbridge as a penalty than is the case. It is possible that the line is in such condition that it can no longer be safely operated, in which case the public and Enbridge shareholders should be informed and the line taken out of service. The administrative processes underway in Minnesota to permit and site the proposed replacement should go on without interference or influence by the federal government except as a party to those proceedings. The inclusion of the replacement of Line 3 in the Decree implies that the federal agencies have an interest in seeing it replaced. If that is the case, they should become parties to the proceedings in Minnesota and not appear to provide support for Enbridge’s proposed replacement in the context of this consent decree. If there is some other explanation for this provision, the EPA should provide it publicly so that the public can weigh that information in making their comments to the court on the proposed decree.

3) The third major failure of the decree is the failure to include any Supplemental Environmental Projects to benefit the community, the region or the river. All of the penalty money – all 60+ million dollars – goes into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund of the federal treasury. It is inexplicable that the agencies and Enbridge could not identify a single project that might spend some of that money to benefit the community or the ecosystem most damaged.

The Consent Decree is open for 30 days of public comments to be filed with the Department of Justice by August 24, 2016. You can find the commenting process here.  After six years, EPA and Justice should be able to provide answers to these concerns in time for the public to consider their reasoning in making their own comments on the decree.

PHMSA announces oil spill planning program workshop

In July 2011, when the NTSB issued its report on the Enbridge Line 6b spill, it recommended that the Secretary of Transportation audit the spill response plan review program at PHMSA, as it noted some shortcomings in the program.  That audit began approximately 2 years after the report was issued, and has yet to be released, as it has been undergoing “internal review” for at least a year.  

Last year, when the National Academies of Science issued its second report on the fate and effects of diluted bitumen when spilled into the environment, they made specific recommendations for improvements to PHMSA’s spill response planning program, some of which could have much broader effect beyond spill plans for pipelines carrying dilbit.  

Perhaps this is the beginning of PHMSA’s effort to undertake those regulatory changes?  Although if so, the announcement gives no indication of any causal relationship between published concerns with the existing program and this workshop.  

Published in the Federal Register today is a notice of a workshop on oil spill response planning to be held in Washington DC on APRIL 12 – Yes, that’s right, 2 whole entire weeks notice.  As of today, neither the notice nor the public meeting entry on PHMSA’s website contain any indication who will be presenting information at the meeting nor is there any background document included or referenced for the public to learn from or react to, although we are reassured that public comments are welcome before or after the workshop.  

You can register to attend in person or to watch the webcast on the PHMSA website here:  (Don’t be put off by the extensive list of nearby restaurants at the top of this meeting page.  There is a schedule of topics for the meeting (no names attached) at the bottom.)

From the Federal Register notice: 

PHMSA wishes to gather information about the efficacy of the oil spill response plan regulations. PHMSA is aware that regulated entities and members of the public have requested greater direction and regulatory interpretation. PHMSA is also aware that its oil spill response plan regulations do not fully align with the regulations of other federal agencies that have been delegated jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. 1321(j)(5). PHMSA is exploring ways to reduce redundancy, clarify language and improve efficacy of its oil spill response plan regulations.

PHMSA believes improving the response plan preparation and submission process is important for improving response actions, ensuring response capabilities, and minimizing harm to the environment. In particular, PHMSA is interested in collaboration with other jurisdictional federal agencies, operators, and oil spill response organizations.

Here’s the Federal Register notice: Federal Register | Oil Spill Response Planning Workshop
So, any of you who went through the Santa Barbara spill last year, watching the barefoot volunteer Home Depot bucket brigade clean oil off beaches where there were no operator or agency staff around because they spent the first day after the spill “planning” their response; from Montana, where the available valves were not closed to prevent much of the oil that spilled into the Yellowstone from reaching the river near Laurel; from Montana, where the town of Glendive wasn’t notified to shut down its drinking water supply until after the oil had reached its intakes, and most of the spill was unrecoverable under the ice of the Yellowstone; from Mayflower, Arkansas, where significant drainage into the lake was prevented by local public works employees building a makeshift dam at a culvert and no one was monitoring for air quality impacts in much of the affected area; or in Michigan, where Enbridge’s Line 6b ruptured and pumped dlibit into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River for 17 hours before being shut down, where cleanup has taken more than 5 years.  Or those of you in the upper midwest, worried about additional spills into your lakes, rivers, wetlands and muskeg where there aren’t access roads for response equipment.  Tune in to the webcast and comment.  I’m guessing your view of the “efficacy of the oil spill response planning regulations”  is a bit different than the voices PHMSA has invited to the workshop.  
If by the off chance someone feels strongly about this subject, has the time to attend, and has some expertise that would be beneficial for other workshop participants, the Pipeline Safety Trust has a fund to help pay for the travel costs associated with getting there and attending. Send Carl ( a short note telling him why you want to go, and perhaps we can help cover the costs.

Surprise! Dilbit really IS different!

The National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine this week recommended substantial changes in the rules under which pipeline spill response plans are reviewed and approved, as well as improvements in the type of information made available about various types of crude oil being transported in pipelines. These recommendations were included in the Academies’ second report on the risks of transportation of diluted bitumen by pipeline. Diluted bitumen is one name[1] for the product created when bitumen extracted from the Canadian tar sands is mixed with enough lower viscosity diluent to allow it to be pumped through pipelines.


When the federal pipeline program was reauthorized in 2012, Congress included in the bill a directive to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) to undertake a study of whether there were increased risks of failure in pipelines carrying dilbit. Although risks are normally considered to be of two parts (probability and consequences), the first NAS study commissioned by PHMSA examined only the question of whether the probability of a failure was higher for a pipeline carrying dilbit. You can find that report here. Congress in 2014 further directed PHMSA to “investigate whether the spill properties of diluted bitumen differ sufficiently from those of other liquid petroleum products to warrant modifications of spill response plans, spill preparedness, or clean-up regulations.” The new report is now here. It is long and detailed and thorough. Spoiler alert: Dilbit does indeed behave differently, and in ways that make cleanup harder and less successful. As a result, the report recommends substantial changes in spill planning for pipelines carrying dilbit.


Here is a short version of some of the other recommendations for changes in the laws and regulations:


Oil Spill Response Planning:

  • Require the plan to identify all types of crude carried by the pipeline by industry standard name, e.g. Cold Lake Blend, and to include Safety Data Sheets for each named crude. SDS sheets should include spill properties as well as personal safety information.
  • Plans should identify all areas most sensitive to spills of dilbit, including water bodies at risk.
  • Plans must detail operator response activities and response resources to mitigate a spill of dilbit.
  • PHMSA must conduct reviews of both the completeness and the adequacy of spill response plans, rather than maintaining their current checklist approach to approving plans. Require PHMSA to consult with USEPA and USCG to obtain input on whether plans are adequate for spills of dilbit.
  • Require operators to post on their websites and submit to PHMSA annual reports of the volumes of the various types of crude oil transmitted by segments of its pipelines.


Oil Spill Response


  • Response agencies and the oil and pipeline industry should support development of effective techniques for detection containment and recovery of submerged and sunken oils.
  • Response agencies should all use the same nomenclature for crude oils.


USCG oil Classification system


  • The Coast Guard should revise its classification system to recognize dilbit as a potentially non-floating oil after evaporation of the diluent. The revisions should be incorporated into EPA and PHMSA planning regulations.


Improved Coordination


  • PHMSA, and federal, state and local response agencies should better coordinate and share lessons to improve spill planning and response. These agencies should jointly conduct announced and unannounced exercises for spills of dilbit. [And in our opinion, all other liquids subject to spill planning rules!]


Research priorities


  • The report lists several broad areas the need substantial additional research: transport and fate of dilbit in the environment; ecological and human health risks of weathered dilbit; detection and quantification of submerged and sunken oil; techniques to intercept and recover submerged oil on the move; alternatives to dredging; collaboration with and access to spill sites for scientists outside the formal response framework.


In response to media requests for response to the report, PHMSA prepared a list of initial tasks it intends to undertake in response to the report, and also indicated that the agency would continue its review of the detailed findings of the study and look for additional steps that it could take. Here is PHMSA’s list of initial tasks:


  • develop and publish an Advisory Bulletin highlighting the findings of the study and suggest voluntary improvements that onshore oil pipeline operators should make to their oil spill response plans to address plan improvement recommendations.
  • work with the National Response Team (NRT) and the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR) to advance the recommendations included in the report.
  • continue to work with the American Petroleum Institute’s Spill Advisory Committee, Spill Control Association of America, and other industry organizations to improve oil spill response planning and preparedness.
  • host a public workshop in the spring of 2016 to solicit input from interested parties, government agencies and members of the public on how it can improve and enhance 49 CFR Part 194 and address the NAS recommendations.


Succeeding in changing the Part 194 regulations to incorporate these recommendations and changing the internal agency practices and culture around spill planning and plan reviews will be no easy feat. The National Transportation Safety Administration recommended in its 2011 report on the 2010 dilbit spill in Marshall, Michigan that the Secretary of Transportation conduct an audit of PHMSA’s spill response plan program. While that audit has begun, it has not yet been completed or released to the public. This NAS study identifies a number of major corrections that are needed specific to improving plans that relate to potential spills of dilbit. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 4 years to enact these recommendations.


[1] Diluted bitumen is also sometimes referred to as dilbit, tar sands oil, oil sands oil, or is identified by the geographic area of its source, e.g. Cold Lake Blend. The NAS recommends the use of the geographic blend names by all agencies.

Conference Sneak Peek! Register Soon! Rates Going up August 1!

Question: When does early bird registration end for the PST conference???

Answer: Tomorrow is the last day to register at early bird rates! Do it today! Rates go up on August 1!

The Pipeline Safety Trust’s 10th Annual Conference will be held November 19-20 in New Orleans. The conference is a unique venue where operators, regulators, consultants, local governments, environmental groups, safety advocates and concerned community members all come together to talk about improving pipeline safety.

Some sneak peeks of what we’re looking forward to:


  • One of the co-authors of the NTSB’s recent safety report on gas transmission integrity management will speak about the findings of the report.


  • We’ll hear a variety of opinions about whether expanding state authority over pipelines would further safety.


  • Three groups will share how they’ve benefited from Community Technical Assistance Grants.


  • Learn how PHMSA plans to spend all that new money in its budget.


  • We’ll get some food for thought on whether pipelines should have permits or licenses that are reviewed periodically and whether enforcement proceedings should be closed.


  • Five years after Marshall and San Bruno, the struggle to identify the right safety metrics and how to measure them continues – we’ll try to jumpstart that discussion with an interactive look at some possibilities.

And as always, we’ll get a look back at this year, a look forward at what might be coming next year, and the ever popular Thursday evening walk for beignets, finding an astounding cross section of the pipeline world uniformly covered with powdered sugar.

Join us at the Royal Sonesta New Orleans, in the heart of all the fun and fabulous food of the French Quarter. Remember, rates go up on August 1! You can find registration information here.


What’s up with the differences in fines?

What’s up with the differences in fines?Money-tips-scale-of-justice

I just saw that along with the big fine ($1.6 billion) the California PUC levied against PG&E for violations relating to the pipeline failure in San Bruno, they also levied (and a court just upheld) a smaller, but still substantial $14.35 million dollar fine against PG&E for recordkeeping and notification violations relating to a pipeline segment running through San Carlos.


Here’s part of the story I saw, as reported by Sarah Smith in SNL:


Although the utility lowered the lines’ MAOPs after making the discovery in the field, the company did not notify the commission until roughly eight months later in an errata filing.


The CPUC in December 2013 voted to fine PG&E $14.35 million not only because of the lengthy reporting delay but also because PG&E informed the commission in an errata document — a type of filing the CPUC asserted is usually used for noting minor corrections. The CPUC said these actions had misled the commission, in violation of CPUC rules.


The fine included $50,000 for each day between when the company discovered its records were wrong and when the utility told the commission, along with $50,000 per day for the time during which PG&E’s misleading records correction document was on file.


My question is this: Why is there such a big difference between the size of these fines and the relatively small penalties levied by PHMSA for other big failures, like the Enbridge spill in Michigan, or the ExxonMobil Silvertip spill in Montana?



There are two answers to this question. The easy one is that California has no maximum amount for a series of continuing or related violations; as long as a violation continues, that $50,000 per day can keep adding up. PHMSA is subject to a $2 million dollar limit for a “related series of violations.” (And the two spills you mention occurred before Congress in 2011 increased PHMSA’s penalty authority from 1 to 2 million dollars for a “related series of violations.”)


And that leads to the second answer, which is: PHMSA is anything but transparent about how it calculates penalties, how it chooses to compromise penalties during, or as a result of, closed enforcement hearings, what will be considered a “related series of violations”, and what will not, what kind of violation will result in the full $200,000 for each violation for each day it occurs, and what will not. While PHMSA has a limitation for related violations imposed by statute, it has not adopted a policy or rule defining what “related series of violations” means, nor do its enforcement decisions make it very clear. For example, is a recordkeeping or reporting violation that is discovered in the course of an incident investigation “related” to other violations for an insufficient risk assessment or emergency plan simply because the shortcomings were identified during the investigation of a single incident? Or what about two independent violations discovered during an inspection, for vastly different subject matters? Are they related? Hard to say. Actually, it’s impossible to say, because PHMSA doesn’t tell anyone.


What’s more, not even the industry is happy with the cloak of mystery surrounding penalty calculations. In a very enlightening document entitled “STATUS OF EVOLVING PHMSA PENALTY POLICY” prepared by two attorneys from Hunton and Williams for an AOPL Business Conference in 2013, they described their concerns with these same two issues: the difficulty in anticipating how PHMSA will calculate a penalty and how PHMSA will decide whether violations are in a related series.


This document also introduced us to the “Pipeline Safety Violation Report (PSVR) used by PHMSA: “PSVRs are prepared as part of the Agency’s enforcement process. They are considered ‘confidential enforcement information’ and protected from disclosure to third parties under FOIA. PSVRs are only provided to an operator in the event an operator challenges an enforcement action by requesting a hearing (and even then only upon an express request for the PSVR by the operator). In our experience, the amount of information included in a PSVR regarding the alleged violations and proposed penalties vary widely, and some do not even contain information regarding penalties at all. The information that is provided rarely (if ever) includes any sort of rationale as to the basis for a proposed penalty.”  Status of Evolving PHMSA Penalty Policy at page 2.


Until PHMSA decides to establish a penalty calculation policy and makes it available to the public, all of this will remain completely hidden from public view, just like everything else that happens in enforcement hearings kept closed from the public view.




Coming Back to Bellingham

June 10, 2015

We’ve just come back from a four day trip to California to participate in a couple of community forums  in Contra Costa County, visit with our friends in the city of San Bruno, meet some staffers in the Gas Safety Division at the CPUC, and research a report we’re writing for the community of Alamo about the liquid products line in their midst and how to improve safety around it.

Our trip fell just a couple of weeks after the oil spill in Santa Barbara, and between meetings, we spent more time on the phone with reporters and legislators and their staffers talking about how to improve pipeline safety in California.

With every public meeting, every conversation with a legislative staffer who has found our website, and every reporter wondering how it is the Trust came to exist, we tell and retell the story of June 10, 1999, the lives lost, the community reaction, the insistence that the story not be forgotten once the forest in Whatcom Falls Park recovered and the salmon returned to Whatcom Creek.

The Bellingham explosion was completely preventable. Just like the more than 74% of significant incidents on hazardous liquid pipelines in the past 10 years, it was caused by things within the operator’s control. (More than 57% of the past 10 years’ significant incidents on the gas transmission system fall into these same categories.) Causes like corrosion, incorrect operation, and material or valve failure – those are things the operators can anticipate, prevent and mitigate. But for whatever reason, they don’t, or won’t, or choose not to. And so, the Bambi vs. Godzilla story continues.

Last year, on the 15th anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy, Carl wrote a remarkable description of the impact of the Bellingham story.  It is a powerful reminder of Why the Bellingham Story Must Continue to Be Told. We urge you to revisit it.


Bellingham on June 10, 1999



“I hope that everyone in Bellingham and around the country will join us today to remember the story again, and to show others that while we are tired of the story it is still important.”




Valves: Block, remote, automatic – which is best?

Our question this time comes from a resident of Santa Barbara and relates to the oil spill last month from an onshore pipeline that failed, allowing crude oil to reach the ocean.

Question of the week:

It would be very helpful for us here in Santa Barbara if you could answer some of our questions. 
One of the issues in our recent pipeline spill near Santa Barbara is whether there should have been an automatic shut off valve, as there is in most of the pipelines here. Industry spokesmen insist that the automatic shutoffs can cause unintended consequences, including over-pressurization elsewhere in the pipeline, and that it’s safer to shut down the pipeline manually. Other pipelines here have automatic shutoffs and haven’t had any incidents with them. Can you clear up this muddle?

I think there continues to be a good deal of confusion regarding this spill, which is too bad because either PHMSA or the company could clear it up with a little more communication.

For instance, I still do not know what type of valve was on that pipeline. Some reports say the valve was “manually” closed which would make someone believe that it was like the valve in San Bruno where someone had to actually drive to the site and turn the valve off by turning a large wheel/handle lots and lots of times. Other reports say the valve was turned off “manually” from the control room, as in an operator there pushed a button to remotely close the valve electronically. Those are two very different scenarios.

There are basically three types of valves in such locations:

Manual valves that need to be physically turned off at the valve site

Remotely controlled valves (RCVs) that can be turned off from the control room hundreds or thousands of miles away

Automatic shutoff valves (ASVs) that detect a problem on the pipeline themselves and then shut down without any needed human assistance.

Clearly the valve at issue on the Plains All American line was not an automatic valve, but from what I can decipher from the news stories I suspect it was a remotely controlled valve. After the San Bruno tragedy the NTSB recommended installation of automated valves on natural gas pipelines, and they left it up to PHMSA and the industry to decide which was better, remotely actuated or automatic valves. PHMSA did a large and expensive study on those types of valves for both natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, which can be found here. The bottom line was:

“Feasibility evaluations conducted as part of this study show that under certain conditions installing ASVs and RCVs in newly constructed and fully replaced natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines is technically, operationally, and economically feasible with a positive cost benefit. However, these results may not apply to all newly constructed and fully replaced pipelines because site-specific parameters that influence risk analyses and feasibility evaluations often vary significantly from one pipeline segment to another, and may not be consistent with those considered in this study. Consequently, the technical, operational, and economic feasibility and potential cost benefits of installing ASVs and RCVs in newly constructed or fully replaced pipelines need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

 It is true that if an automatic valve decided to close incorrectly, it could cause pressure problems on other parts of the pipeline. In the Bellingham tragedy it was an incorrectly installed valve that decided to close on its own causing a pressure surge to flow back towards Bellingham and the damaged pipeline to burst at a weak spot. Smart engineers seem to believe that while clearly that is a risk, the technology has gotten better, not all automatic valves are installed incorrectly, and that the entire system can be engineered and programmed to do other things when an automatic valve sends a signal it is closing, such as change the speed with which it closes, or direct other components, such as other valves and pump stations, to adjust to the valve closure to overcome that risk.

It is also true that human errors by operators in the control room can delay closure of remotely controlled valves, allowing more oil to spill, as in the ExxonMobil Silvertip Pipeline spill into the Yellowstone, or cause things to be done in the wrong order so the closure of that type of valve may damage other parts of the system. 

So the bottom line is there is a good deal of grey area between exactly the benefits of an ASV over a RCV, and a good deal of it depends on the pipeline system, operator training and the topography. 

The current regulations applying to all hazardous liquid lines require that “a valve must be installed at each of the following locations: ….(c) On each mainline at locations along the pipeline system that will minimize damage or pollution from accidental hazardous liquid discharge, as appropriate for the terrain in open country, for offshore areas, or for populated areas.” 49 CFR §195.260.

For lines to which the integrity management rules apply – that is, that less than half of the liquid lines where a failure could affect a high consequence area – there are additional considerations relating to automatic or remote control valves, or EFRDs, in the regulations words, standing for Emergency Flow Restricting Devices.

First: “An operator must take measures to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a pipeline failure that could affect a high consequence area.” 49 CFR 195.452(i). The operator must undertake a risk analysis “to identify additional actions to enhance public safety or environmental protection”….including “installing EFRDs on the pipeline segment.”

Speaking specifically about EFRDs: “If an operator determines that an EFRD is needed on a pipeline segment to protect a high consequence area in the event of a hazardous liquid pipeline release, and operator must install the EFRD.” 49 CFR 195. 452(i)(4). This sentence is followed by a long list of factors that must be considered in determining whether an EFRD is needed.

Unfortunately, like most risk/performance based regulations, these do not help eliminate any of the gray area on this issue. And they leave the consideration and determination to each operator in the context of an integrity management plan the public will never see.

There is a good deal of speculation that a proposed change in the rules governing hazardous liquid lines may include changes to regulations about the installation of different kinds of valves, but no one knows for sure. An Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued in October of 2010, indicating that valves might be included in the proposed rule. The proposed rule has yet to emerge from PHMSA and the review by the White House Office of Management and Budget. To get notifications of progress in this area, go to, search for PHMSA-2010-0229, and sign up to receive email notifications when new information is posted.