Monday, September 12, 2011

Pipeline safety regulators focus on population centers, leaving rural areas more vulnerable

After two recent oil spills, one in Montana and one in Michigan, that released over 885,000 gallons of crude into nearby rivers, much attention has been paid to lack of oversight of the 167,000 miles of hazardous-liquid pipelines that cross the nation's rural areas.

Dan Frosch and Janet Roberts of The New York Times discovered through investigation of federal reports and safety documents that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, charged with oversight of safety and regulation of the pipeline system, only has 118 inspectors, 17 fewer than federal law authorizes, and does not have the resources to hire more. This is increasingly leaving oversight in the hands of pipeline operators.

Though the pipeline industry reported 25 percent fewer spill incidents from 2001 to 2010 than in the prior decade, there are still more than 100 significant spills every year, Frosch and Roberts write. The agency only requires inspectors to focus on 44 percent of land-based pipelines close to population centers and delicate environmental areas, leaving thousands of miles of pipelines in rural areas to be "loosely regulated and operating essentially on the honor system."

These concerns come close to the State Department's recent approval of the controversial Keystone XL, a proposed 1,661-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas. Paired with a report recently released by the National Transportation Safety Board about a natural-gas pipeline explosion in California that claimed eight lives, the safety of the proposed line and the 40- to 60-year-old nationwide pipeline infrastructure has been brought into question. (Read more)

To see a Times map showing where these spills most frequently occur, along with data about the main causes of these spills, click here.

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