On June 10, 1999, a few days after his high school graduation, Liam Wood unexpectedly got an afternoon off work and decided to go fly-fishing on a creek near his hometown of Bellingham, Washington. About 100 miles away, operators missed the signs of a pressure spike in the 16-inch gasoline pipeline that crossed the stream in Whatcom Falls Park.
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The pipe ruptured at a point where, several years before, a backhoe had accidentally struck and weakened the 50-year-old iron. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline began to spew into the creek near where Liam stood, staining the water pink.
It took an hour for control room computers to register an alert. Police began to evacuate the park, but Liam was already dead. Overcome by fumes, the 18-year-old had fallen unconscious into the water and drowned.
Then two 10-year-old boys playing in the park flicked a lighter they’d been using to set off fireworks, igniting the gasoline. The fireball set dozens of acres ablaze in a towering black cloud that could be seen in Vancouver, more than 50 miles away. The two boys died the next day, succumbing to burns over more than 80 percent of their bodies.
The ensuing public outrage revealed gaping holes in pipeline safety regulations. The pipeline company had failed — but clearly, so had federal authorities who were supposed to be keeping watch. At the time of the Bellingham disaster, pipeline operators were not required to inspect the inside of their pipes or install valves that would automatically shut after a rupture. Government auditors later found that the federal agency in charge of pipeline safety was a dismal failure at implementing more stringent regulations, in part because it deemed the rules “too costly for the pipeline industry compared with the expected benefits.”
Six months after the blast, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent agency investigating the Bellingham explosion, strode into a meeting of pipeline executives to unleash a brutal critique of the federal regulators and of the industry he believed shared the blame for obstructing reform.
“There is nowhere today the sense that the Office of Pipeline Safety is in charge,” Jim Hall said then, “or that its regulations, its inspections, its assets, its staffing and its spirit are adequate to the task.”
Bellingham was supposed to change that. But more than 15 years later, Hall says he sees little evidence of meaningful improvements. “Unfortunately,” he told POLITICO, “I think I would give the same speech today.”
The story of what happened in those 15 years — or rather, what didn’t happen — is in large part the story of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an obscure agency that was created to oversee the nation’s sprawling network of oil and gas pipelines.
Oil and gas companies like to assure the public that pipelines are a safer way to ship their products than railroads or trucks. But government data makes clear there is hardly reason to celebrate. Last year, more than 700 pipeline failures killed 19 people, injured 97 and caused more than $300 million in damage. Two of the past five years have been the worst for combined pipeline-related deaths and injuries since 2000.
To understand the failure revealed by these numbers, POLITICO talked to more than 15 former and current federal pipeline officials and advisers, as well as dozens of safety experts, engineers and state regulators. We reviewed more than a decade of government data on fatalities, injuries, property damage, incident locations, inspections, damages and penalties.
The picture that emerges is of an agency that lacks the manpower to inspect the nation’s 2.6 million miles of oil and gas lines, that grants the industry it regulates significant power to influence the rule-making process, and that has stubbornly failed to take a more aggressive regulatory role, even when ordered by Congress to do so.
This is a particularly bad time for a front-line safety agency to take a backseat.
The current boom in fossil fuel production has created intense pressure for massive new pipelines like Keystone XL. Many of the pipes already in the ground are more than half a century old. Tens of thousands of miles of pipeline go completely unregulated by federal officials, who have abandoned the increasingly high-pressure lines to the states.
Meanwhile, fatal incidents continue; a gas explosion in Alabama killed one man in January, and PHMSA reported 10 injuries in the three months it took to report this story.
A senior Capitol Hill aide who has long tracked the agency, speaking on condition of anonymity, lamented PHMSA’s deeply rooted “culture of can’t.”
“PHMSA has always said, ‘We can’t,’” the aide said. “‘We can’t get it through [the White House budget office],’ ‘We can’t get the money,’ ‘We can’t get the resources,’ ‘We can’t submit what we really want,’ ‘We can’t regulate this,’ ‘We can’t get enough inspectors to do this.’ … PHMSA acts like it’s been beaten down for decades. Every time you try to offer a hand up, it almost retreats.”
About a year after Bellingham came a natural gas explosion in New Mexico that killed 12 people. Members of Congress were rushing to make up for years of inattention, but the families of those killed in Bellingham didn’t hesitate to criticize proposed laws they felt were “watered down by those who pay homage to the powerful oil and gas lobbyists.”
One of those family members was Bruce Brabec, whose stepson was Liam Wood. Brabec would soon join a private watchdog group as a way to deal with his grief. “I didn’t want to just be angry,” said Brabec, whose short-cropped white beard gives him the look of a college professor. “I wanted to be effective. I wanted to help make changes.”
The creation of PHMSA, an arm of the Department of Transportation, didn’t come for another two years, the result of a bureaucratic reorganization more than a burning desire to bring pipeline companies to heel. Indeed, the new pipeline safety agency inherited many of its predecessor’s flaws — weaknesses entrenched in part by a style that was “a lot more collaborative than traditional rule making,” as one former safety official described it.
PHMSA’s regulations tend to be “a bit open-ended” as opposed to “a prescriptive one-size-fits-all,” said Eben Wyman, a former Transportation Department official who is now a lobbyist representing the plastic pipe industry.
The post-Bellingham reforms give operators latitude to write their own safety plans overseen by PHMSA, which makes it harder for regulators to catch violations. Safety advocates worry that approach is tantamount to self-regulation. But PHMSA and its defenders say that no two pipes are the same and that regulators couldn’t monitor millions of miles of technically complex line without relying on the companies.
A PHMSA official who declined to speak on the record with POLITICO compared the agency to a traffic cop. PHMSA, the official said, “is not responsible for individuals speeding,” but it does have the “responsibility to enforce the law and pull them over to protect the public.”
But the rules PHMSA enforces get shaped by the pipeline industry — as if lead-footed drivers helped to set highway speed limits.
All rules made by the agency undergo “peer review” by two advisory committees, one for hazardous liquids and one for gas. By law, the 15-member committees — five each from industry, government and the public — have the power to vote on proposed regulations and policy moves. In theory, there is balance, but in practice, industry has an advantage. The committees’ current rosters are missing seven members in total on the government and public sides, making it difficult to stop a move backed by pipeline companies.
(PHMSA told POLITICO that it is working on getting the rosters back in balance.)
“With PHMSA, there’s only one wind, and it blows from the industry,” said Paul Blackburn, a consultant who works primarily with environmentalists and landowners.
Advisory committee meetings are largely friendly affairs, a review of thousands of pages of transcripts shows, almost wholly devoid of resistance to industry-driven projects that craft voluntary standards for PHMSA. One high-profile standard that PHMSA and industry plan to tout at a hearing on April 22 covers “safety management systems” that are modeled on practices used for decades in the nuclear and aviation industries. But they are voluntary, like so many of PHMSA’s standards.
“From the get-go, the regulations get watered down,” said Randy Knepper, a top pipeline safety official in New Hampshire. “There’s not a lot of teeth behind them.”
PHMSA’s chief pipeline safety official, Jeffrey Wiese, acknowledged at a 2011 meeting of advisers that the agency has trouble determining “who really speaks for the public,” dismissing “advocacy groups out there with a hard-bent agenda.”
“[T]ruth be told, very little [of the] public is even interested or knows” about pipelines, Wiese said. “It’s the ones who were near a failure, and their view is skewed.”
Stacey Gerard, a 20-year PHMSA veteran who retired as its chief safety officer, said public members of the advisory committees “are not getting paid to do the research and reading” that might empower them to play a more vocal role. “Industry is going to be more dominant in the committee discussions because they’re usually more prepared and better armed.”
The most powerful counterweight to the pipeline industry’s sway over its regulators comes, not surprisingly, from Bellingham. Twelve years ago, former environmental educator Carl Weimer created the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust to keep an eye on pipeline companies and their regulators in Washington. The judge who awarded $4 million in criminal penalties to the group likened it to “Bambi taking on Godzilla.”
Bambi has learned how to roar in its own way over the years. Weimer sits on one of PHMSA’s advisory panels and is a frequent witness at congressional pipeline hearings. He recalls sprinting to a Capitol Hill Starbucks in 2006 to sketch out legislative language at the request of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that ultimately made it into that year’s pipeline safety bill.
But Weimer’s influence has not sparked the kind of formal resistance that might stop a weak regulation. During his eight years on a PHMSA advisory committee, he could not remember any formal opposition materializing to a proposed rule. A PHMSA official countered that “tussling” among advisers does happen but downplayed its importance, telling POLITICO that “we consider their input, but are not bound by their input.”
PHMSA’s longest-serving chief, Cynthia Quarterman, said in an interview with POLITICO that she was “concerned” about the advisory committee structure when she was appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama. But Quarterman, a former industry lawyer who led the agency until October, came around to the concept “because, if you could get them to agree across the board that what they’re doing makes sense, it makes a better case going forward.”