Environmentalists criticize pipeline regulators’ spending

Environmentalists are using government data to argue that pipeline regulators spend more time and money connecting with industry groups than they do inspecting problems.

The data was gathered by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and said that regulators from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration attended 850 conferences and events hosted by industry groups between 2007 and 2012. But regulators from the agency responded to just 159 incidents in that time frame, the group said.

In that same period, there have been nearly 300 incidents, such as spills, explosions or breakdowns, to which the agency did not send a regulator to conduct a follow-up investigation, the group said.

The agency said insinuations that it was not focused on safety were false.

“Pipeline safety is our top priority,” said Jeannie Shiffer, PHMSA’s director of governmental, international, and public affairs, in an email. “In 2012, pipeline safety personnel spent 80 percent of their time conducting safety related activities including inspections and incident investigations on the ground, in the lab, and at the office, as well as enforcement and public outreach. Any study that purports otherwise is misunderstanding the data and the nature of these highly trained engineers’ jobs.”

Between 2007 and 2012, the agency spent $243,938 sending its regulators to conferences and other industry events, but spent far less for travel related to pipeline incidents: $171,801, the environmental group said.

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“This imbalance in how PHMSA uses its resources is striking because there is such a yawning vacuum in the field, occasioning greater risks to public safety and the environment,” the group said in a statement.

Shiffer, of the agency, said regulators have good reason for spending time on outreach.

“Our goal is to prevent pipeline accidents before they happen through enforcement, education, training and public safety awareness,” Shiffer said. “Our inspectors play a major role not only conducting inspections but also educating the public and instructing industry about federal pipeline safety law requirements.”