Witnesses set for Rockefeller pipeline safety hearing

January 23, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has set the witness list for Monday’s big pipeline safety hearing here in Charleston. Witnesses include:

— Sue Bonham, a resident of Sissonville, West Virginia whose home was damaged during a natural gas transmission pipeline explosion in December.

— The Honorable Deborah Hersman, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

— The Honorable Cynthia Quarterman, Administrator, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

— Ms. Susan Fleming, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, United States Government Accountability Office

— Mr. Jimmy Staton, Executive Vice President and Group CEO, NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage

— Mr. Rick Kessler, President of the Board, The Pipeline Safety Trust

Sen. Rockefeller said today:

I’m looking forward to hearing from all of our witnesses next week. Our policy decisions and industry practices should always be driven by the real life implications of our work. One witness, Sue Bonham of Sissonville, will share her personal experiences that underscore the importance for all of us to continue our efforts to work toward improved safety across the board.

Later today, we’re expecting the release of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the ability of natural gas pipeline operators to respond to emergency incidents like last month’s near-disaster in Sissonville. The GAO report was mandated by the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011, which was based in part on language from Sen. Rockefeller and was signed into law by President Obama in January 2012.

UPDATED:  The GAO has posted its report, and here’s the summary:

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has an opportunity to improve the ability of pipeline operators to respond to incidents by developing a performance-based approach for incident response times. The ability of transmission pipeline operators to respond to incidents–such as leaks and ruptures–is affected by numerous variables, some of which are under operators’ control. For example, the use of different valve types (manual valves or “automated” valves that can be closed automatically or remotely) and the location of response personnel can affect the amount of time it takes for operators to respond to incidents. Variables outside of operators’ control, such as weather conditions, can also influence incident response time, which can range from minutes to days. GAO has previously reported that a performance-based approach–including goals and associated performance measures and targets–can allow those being regulated to determine the most appropriate way to achieve desired outcomes. In addition, several organizations in the pipeline industry have developed methods for quantitatively evaluating response times to incidents, including setting specific, measurable performance goals. While defining performance measures and targets for incident response can be challenging, PHMSA could move toward a performance-based approach by evaluating nationwide data to determine response times for different types of pipeline (based on location, operating pressure, and pipeline diameter, among other factors). However, PHMSA must first improve the data it collects on incident response times. These data are not reliable both because operators are not required to fill out certain time-related fields in the reporting form and because operators told us they interpret these data fields in different ways. Reliable data would improve PHMSA’s ability to measure incident response and assist the agency in exploring the feasibility of developing a performance-based approach for improving operator response to pipeline incidents.

The primary advantage of installing automated valves is that operators can respond quickly to isolate the affected pipeline segment and reduce the amount of product released; however, automated valves can have disadvantages, including the potential for accidental closures–which can lead to loss of service to customers or even cause a rupture–and monetary costs. Because the advantages and disadvantages of installing an automated valve are closely related to the specifics of the valve’s location, it is appropriate to decide whether to install automated valves on a case-by-case basis. Several operators we spoke with have developed approaches to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of installing automated valves. For example, some operators of hazardous liquid pipelines use spill-modeling software to estimate the amount of product release and extent of damage that would occur in the event of an incident. While PHMSA conducts a variety of information-sharing activities, the agency does not formally collect or share evaluation approaches used by operators to decide whether to install automated valves. Furthermore, not all operators we spoke with were aware of existing PHMSA guidance designed to assist operators in making these decisions. PHMSA could assist operators in making this decision by formally collecting and sharing evaluation approaches and ensuring operators are aware of existing guidance.

Sen. Rockefeller has held three previous hearings that focused on pipeline safety (see here, here and here) and a fourth hearing that touched on the issue.

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