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An environmental group, citing recent big petroleum leaks, has filed suit against the nation's top pipeline safety office.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) takes the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to task for failing to carry out surprise inspections the sort of review that might turn up the kind of problems that led to a 6-foot-long breach in the Chevron pipeline in Utah that spilled about 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel near the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge last month.
"PHMSA has not just been asleep at the switch; they cannot even find the switch," said Kathryn Douglass, the lawyer who filed the suit Wednesday in a Washington, D.C., federal court. "Without surprise inspections or reviews of pipeline plans, the industry has been left to self-regulate."
Jeannie Layson, PHMSA's director for Governmental, International, and Public Affairs, said her agency does not comment on pending litigation.
"PHMSA is reviewing the documents submitted as part of the lawsuit and will respond accordingly," she said.
But Douglass, who grew up in the Salt Lake Valley, said the lawsuit does not specifically identify problems associated with Utah's pipelines or any others. Instead, it looks at wider issues with PHMSA's oversight of the extensive network of oil, gas and other hazardous materials pipelines that could wrap around the globe 100 times.
PEER's suit follows a records request that revealed the agency cannot say it has had even one unannounced emergency preparedness exercise in the past five years although those exercises are required by law. Nor has the agency reported reviewing inspection data and certifications that pipeline operators have submitted in the past five years.
PEER said the agency has failed to make use of new authority Congress gave it last year and to implement reforms advised by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Government Accountability Office.
"The emerging record documents an appalling dereliction of duty at what is supposed to be a critical safety agency," Douglass added. "PHMSA needs more than minor repairs; it needs a major overhaul, starting with a leadership transplant."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said two weeks ago that his administration may seek a more active pipeline safety oversight role.
"Obviously, [federal regulators] have not done a very good job of overseeing the pipes that travel between our states," the governor said, commenting on Chevron's third pipeline spill in Utah in less than three years. "And this is just not an acceptable situation."
On Wednesday, Herbert Deputy Chief of Staff Ally Isom said the state is still working toward prevention of future pipeline problems.
"Right now we are reviewing our options on a state level," Isom said, "to determine how we can work with the federal government and be more preventive, rather than reactive."
Utah's latest spill occurred when a seam split on a 760-mile pipeline that carries diesel fuel from the five Salt Lake-area refineries to Idaho and Spokane, Wash. Six beavers are still being treated at an Ogden wildlife rehabilitation center for exposure to the leaked diesel.
Water in a nearby reservoir has been slightly contaminated with diesel fuel, and Chevron has installed a drain to capture diesel in groundwater that's leaching traces of fuel into the reservoir.
Major U.S. petroleum leaks recently include:
• A March 29 spill that sent 156,000 gallons of crude into a Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood from an ExxonMobil pipeline;
• A leak detected April 3 that spilled an estimated 38,000 gallons of crude from a Shell Oil pipeline near Houston.