Former pipeline inspector raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the current regulatory system

October 4, 2021

This article was first published on WatchtheLine.org. The author previously worked as a state pipeline inspector, working in conjunction with the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA). The author requested anonymity.

I became a state pipeline inspector to protect the public. Inspectors are charged with inspecting each oil, gas and ammonia pipeline in the state for compliance with the federal codes on such things as pipeline construction, operations, maintenance and public awareness.

Each time an accident occurs – whether it results in small environmental harm or a death – new regulations are written to prevent that failure in the future.

For example, in 1937 a natural gas explosion at a Texas school killed nearly 300 students. That led to a requirement that pipeline companies add odorant (a Sulphur compound that most of us recognize as the smell of natural gas) so people will be alerted to a leak.

A crew picking up contaminated soil along the banks of the Kalamazoo River following an Enbridge pipeline rupture. Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

More recently, in 2010, an Enbridge oil pipeline spilled into the Kalamazoo River for 17 hours before the company turned off the pumps. In that case, Enbridge’s computer center operators believed they were getting nuisance alarms and overrode the automatic shutdown.

Since then, an entire new section of code was added to cover computer operations, and state agencies were required to include the companies’ computer control systems in their inspections.

It’s unfortunate that humans can never anticipate all the myriad ways that an accident can occur. But once an accident does occur, PHMSA wants to ensure that the same scenario never happens again. So the agency requires regular inspections on every aspect of the pipeline, from its corrosion control measures to the calculation of maximum allowable pressure within the pipe. And this means a regular and frequent presence of state and federal inspectors traveling the pipeline, poking around pump stations, taking pictures of workers welding, looking through manuals, and sitting in on table-top disaster response drills.

However, the inspection agencies are funded by the pipeline companies, including inspectors’ salaries, office equipment, personal protective equipment, and vehicles for conducting inspections.

If the agencies conducting the inspections are funded by those being inspected, who are the inspectors really working for?

In addition to a flow of oil and funding, there is a flow of personnel. An enormous amount of job-shifting occurs between the inspection agencies and the pipeline companies, similar to the famous revolving door between legislators and lobbyists. That means that pipeline companies get personnel who are fully trained in the regulations—and who also understand how to keep certain issues, even violations, from the eyes of the inspectors. In turn, the inspection agencies sometimes get personnel who might give a pass to certain possibly unsafe practices.

An enormous amount of job-shifting occurs between inspection agencies and pipeline companies, similar to the famous revolving door between legislators and lobbyists.

When an inspector does find a problem, from anything as minor as the company failing to do a timely inspection on an element of the pipeline to something as consequential as causing a death, the inspector may impose a fine. While the regulatory codes are extensive, penalties for violations are small. Up until 2017, the government’s fines and penalties schedule hadn’t been increased in many years. They remain comically low compared to the profits that the company rakes in.

Even then, companies argue and litigate over those small fines and penalties. Penalties are often reduced or eliminated altogether.

How effective can an inspection be if the companies don’t face repercussions for bad behavior?

What is the message sent to pipeline companies if the already miniscule slap on the wrist for violations is further reduced?

Enter Enbridge Line 3. Given the amount of scrutiny over pipeline construction, why didn’t Minnesota’s state pipeline inspection agency send increased numbers of inspectors to the construction sites, if only to give the appearance of understanding the public’s concern about the pipeline? Instead of paying for the enhanced “security” during construction, why didn’t Enbridge instead pay for enhanced presence of inspectors, people who are supposed to ensure the safety of the public?

It is clear that Enbridge is beholden to its profits and not to protecting the public. It is also clear that the inspection agencies are working to protect the pipeline companies’ profits rather than for their stated mission of protection of “lives, property, and the environment.”

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