Two stark numbers illustrate the challenge the administration faces in ensuring pipeline safety while pressing ahead with new pipeline projects: 135 federal inspectors oversee 2.6 million miles of pipeline, which means each inspector is responsible for almost enough pipe to circle the Earth. PHMSA says it has the help of about 300 state inspectors, but not all states have inspection programs.
According to an analysis of inspection records by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), only a fifth of the nation’s 2.6 million miles of pipeline have been inspected by PHMSA or its state partners since 2006. PEER obtained the records through the Freedom of Information Act.
InsideClimate News tried for several weeks to arrange an interview with Wiese about his remarks. At one point PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill wrote in an email: “I’m trying to help you get what you need for your story and in no way are we saying that Mr. Wiese or anyone else in PHMSA is unavailable to provide information or clarifications.”
But Hill didn’t respond to subsequent emails requesting to speak with Wiese and other PHMSA staffers who attended the pipeline safety conference in New Orleans, and Wiese didn’t respond to interview requests sent to his official email address.
PHMSA was created in 2004 as an agency within the federal Department of Transportation. It is a thin green line intended to ensure the safety of energy pipelines that crisscross the United States. Pipelines also carry other hazardous materials, including poisonous, carcinogenic chemicals like benzene. The agency’s tasks include auditing the records of almost 3,000 pipeline operators; developing, issuing and enforcing pipeline safety regulations; conducting industry training, and investigating accidents.
The challenges facing regulators are daunting. More than half of the nation’s pipeline was buried prior to 1970, about the same time the nation’s first pipeline safety law was enacted and the Office of Pipeline Safety created. Much of the old pipe remains a question mark in terms of its location, composition, level of corrosion and quality of welding.