Audit finds that many natural gas pipelines in Texas are not inspected
Nov. 03, 2011 3
By Bill Hanna Star-Telegram
A state auditor's report released this week found that the Texas Railroad Commission inspected only 65 percent of the highest-priority pipelines last year that were identified in the agency's annual inspection work plan.
The finding was just one of many in the audit, which determined that the Railroad Commission has "opportunities to strengthen" its Pipeline Safety and Damage Prevention program.
Specifically, the audit cited four areas that need work -- increasing inspections of pipeline systems ranked as the highest priority; increasing the accuracy and completeness of annual pipeline inspections, including reviews of pipeline operators' integrity management plans; following pipeline damage incidents and ensuring that investigations are completed before a case is closed; and strengthening certain information technology controls.
Texas has the largest U.S. network of natural gas pipelines, with about 270,000 miles of pipeline systems in the state. It was the site of two high-profile deadly pipeline accidents in 2010 -- one in Johnson County, where a crew installing electrical towers struck a natural gas line that erupted into flames, and one in the Panhandle, where a bulldozer struck a pipeline.
Nationally, pipeline inspections drew more attention after a September 2010 explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight and destroyed 38 homes.
"It's pretty interesting to see how well the states are doing on inspections. It's become a bigger issue around the country since the explosion in San Bruno occurred last year," said Carl Weimer of Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Wash.
Last year, Weimer and another researcher were commissioned by the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods to study the city's growing natural gas pipeline system.
They warned that regulatory loopholes could cause problems as companies build more pipelines. But they also noted that state and city measures are in place that govern the pipelines
"The interesting part of the audit was there were 37,000 incident reports," Weimer said. "There was both good news and bad news. The bad news was the state hadn't gone through the process to close out all of the cases. The good news is Texas is one of the few states to even collect that type of information."
Libby Willis, president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods, said the study "should be a wake-up call," especially in Fort Worth, which has more than 900 miles of pipelines.
But with only 65 percent of the high-priority pipelines being inspected, Willis said, residents see that as a cause for concern.
"That's like letting restaurants certify the cleanliness of their own kitchens without outside inspections," Willis said. "How can the citizens be sure of the safety of the pipelines when the [Railroad Commission] is allowing no outside inspections of 35 percent of the high-priority systems?"
Mayor Betsy Price said the inspections are important and noted that it is the state's job to do them.
"The Railroad Commission and the state, through federal regulations, are responsible for pipeline safety inspections, and we expect those inspections to be done thoroughly and completely," Price said in a statement. "We appreciate the state auditor's review of pipeline safety procedures, and I'm pleased to see actionable conclusions to help improve safety."
The Railroad Commission is working to address issues in the audit, spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.
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