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Hearing of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure - Pipeline Safety Public Awareness and Education


Location: Washington, DC

The Subcommittee is meeting today to receive testimony on pipeline safety public awareness and education programs. This hearing is the fourth in a series of hearings focused on the safety of hazardous liquid and gas pipelines.

Public awareness and education is a very important topic as well as a timely one. As we watch what's happening in the Gulf and witness first hand what can happen when things go wrong, we are reminded of how important safety is when it comes to the transportation of hazardous liquid and gas by pipelines. Some will argue that few fatalities and injuries result from pipeline incidents (on average, there are two fatalities and four injuries annually).
However, the difference between pipelines and some of the other transportation modes is a single pipeline incident can be catastrophic, causing not only fatalities and injuries, but significant environmental and property damage.

Just last month, two natural gas pipeline explosions occurred in Texas within a matter of days. In one instance, drilling equipment used to install utility poles had punctured an underground pipeline. The resulting explosion killed one worker and injured eight others. In this instance, the workers had done the right thing and placed a call to 8-1-1, the nationwide "Call Before You Dig" hotline to request that the operator of the pipeline send someone out to mark its location. What is unclear is whether the pipeline operator followed through or not. One day later, in the Texas Panhandle, two workers were killed and three others were injured when a bulldozer struck a natural gas pipeline operated by DCP Midstream Partners, causing an explosion.

Right around the same time, a crude oil spill occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chevron reports that the spill may have been caused by a contractor who had installed a fence post around the electrical substation. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the spill occurred in a densely populated residential area; the crude oil immediately drained into a creek and was carried downstream to a pond where it pooled. Although the spill was able to be stopped, about 150 migratory birds were impacted and some fish were killed. Several residents were angry since the creeks flows through their backyards.

All of these incidents are still under investigation, but they should serve as a reminder that safety is paramount and that we cannot underestimate the importance that educating the public plays toward maintaining this goal. It is critical that PHMSA and its stakeholders spearhead effective education efforts so that communities and landowners are aware of the location of pipelines; the dangers and risks associated with pipelines; and the proper steps they need to protect themselves and the integrity of the pipelines.
Public education and awareness programs are also important so that community's emergency responders are informed and prepared and can take appropriate action in the event of an emergency.

One of PHMSA's greatest safety education campaigns concerns excavation damage -- one of the leading causes of pipeline incidents. In 2002, Congress created the nationwide one-call notification system by enacting the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-355) to address the risks of third party excavation damage. Since this time, PHMSA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have established a 3-digit nationwide toll-free telephone number for excavators to call before they dig so that they can avoid hitting underground utilities. According to PHMSA, that campaign has helped reduce the number of incidents caused by excavation damage from 57 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2009.

It is my hope that PHMSA will take a more leadership role in the Community Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) Program which was created in the 2002 law in the wake of several significant pipeline incidents, including the one in Bellingham, Washington. For a number of years after the 2002 legislation was enacted, PHMSA failed to implement the program and Congress failed to fund it, but in 2009 that changed and thankfully it is up and running. But most States and communities aren't aware of it and I hope PHMSA will play a greater role in educating the public about the availability of the program.

I also have some concerns about how PHMSA is enforcing compliance with pipeline operator public awareness programs. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has made recommendations to both PHMSA and the American Petroleum Institute (API) regarding the effectiveness and oversight of public awareness programs that have not yet been addressed.

The NTSB found that although a pipeline operator's public awareness program plan may comply with federal regulations, there is no guarantee that implementation of the program is effective or that the operator is exercising sufficient oversight of its public awareness and education program. There are very real safety consequences if pipeline operators are not implementing effective programs and those programs are not geared toward the right audiences. For example, NTSB found in certain cases that 9-1-1 operators are neither trained nor aware of hazardous materials pipelines are transporting.

I look forward to hearing more from our panelists today about how they oversee and enforce these critical public awareness programs.

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