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.” (http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Civil-Engineer-Testifies-in-Millennium-Tower-Sinking-412627393.html)  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. 

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