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Federal pipeline safety agency accused of not doing its duty

As we have seen in this blog, oil and gas pipelines must be carefully maintained, or they can explode, putting workers and the public at risk of serious injury. The vast majority of pipeline in the U.S. -- 85 percent -- is inspected by state officials. Their work in turn is supposed to be guided by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.

Unfortunately, it appears that PHMSA is not fulfilling its duty of ensuring that pipelines are being properly inspected. That is the conclusion of a government report blasting PHMSA for allowing infrequent, mistimed inspections to be conducted by inexperienced or unqualified people.

According to The Associated Press, one of PHMAS’s duties is to annually certify 48 state agencies tasked with inspecting oil and gas pipelines for signs of potential accidents. The agency also must conduct more in-depth reviews every three years, and provide funding to states to use on pipeline safety.

But a survey by the Transportation Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that PHMAS is falling short of its oversight duties. The report is based on examination of five states’ pipeline safety measures by the inspector general’s office. It says that PHMAS’s staffing formula is outdated, it lacks minimum standards for team leaders, and its list of risk factors is misleading.

The agency tells states to consider 14 risk factors when prioritizing inspections. But it does not explain how much weight to give each risk factor. So four of the five states in the report weighed each one evenly, and simply scheduled inspections based on how long it had been since the last one.

Oil and gas pipelines have the potential to be highly dangerous and destructive. Without sufficient inspection, they can cause serious workplace injury.

Source: U.S. News and World Report, “Watchdog says federal agency fails to ensure states are overseeing gas, other pipeline safety,” Joan Lowy, May 9, 2014

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