The federal agency overseeing the nation's oil pipelines needs to beef up its on-the-ground inspections and investigations, according to a new report from the U.S. Transportation Department's Inspector General.
The audit briefly highlights the agency's work in Salt Lake City two years ago, when a Chevron pipeline ruptured from a lightning strike and spilled 33,600 gallons of oil into Red Butte Creek.
But it makes no mention of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's (PHMSA) handling of a spill that followed six months later, when a valve broke from freezing water leftover from an integrity test on the first spill.
Jeffrey B. Guzzetti writes in a June 18 memo on the IG's audit that the pipeline office has enormous responsibilities that require strong oversight.
"PHMSA's inspection and enforcement program has accomplished much," he said, "but still faces multiple challenges."
Cynthia L. Quarterman, administrator of the pipeline office, largely agreed with the IG's suggestions and acknowledged that even with "considerable progress, we are working to further … provide effective oversight and pipeline safety in general."
She said to achieve the kinds of improvements needed the agency would have to add 120 inspection and enforcement staff an increase requested in next year's federal budget.
The report credited an on-site inspection for identifying still more safety problems with the Chevron pipeline, which carries crude oil from Rangely, Colo., to the company's Salt Lake City refinery. The company then was ordered to fix the problems.
Despite successes like this, the pipeline agency investigates just half the significant accidents, "thereby limiting the agency's opportunities to identify and mitigate weaknesses," according to the audit.
Jeff Niermeyer, director of the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department, was pleased with the audit and hopes the pipeline agency will follow through with its recommendations.
"A lot of it points to staffing levels," he said.
Now that the oil has been scrubbed out of the Liberty Park pond (which served as a catch basin for the crude that leaked oil from the first spill) and the Red Butte Creek streambed has been cleaned, the city is dealing with some lingering details. A few hot spots remain, Niermeyer said, and areas damaged by the cleanup itself still need to be restored.
And, he added, the city tries to keep up with lessons learned from the 2010 spills.
"Pipelines tend to be out of sight, out of mind," Niermeyer said. "We need to keep them in the forefront."
The spills' impacts also linger at the Utah Division of Water Quality, which cited Chevron for the spills and fined the company $4.5 million.
John Whitehead, the state agency's assistant director, agreed that staffing of the pipeline safety agency is a key issue.
"In a perfect world," he said, "we would have 100 percent inspections of all the pipelines, but, with the resources available, that's unlikely."
Meanwhile, the spills proved to be expensive mistakes for Chevron. The Texas-based company paid about $42.6 million for the cleanup, fines, compensation for affected homeowners and other expenses.
About 66 people who live on and near Red Butte Creek filed a federal suit in March. At the time, their attorneys said they were seeking "tens of millions of dollars." The suit is pending.
A closer look
A new audit of the federal pipeline safety office says that crude oil, refined petroleum and other hazardous liquids course through a network of 175,000 miles of pipe nationwide. Between 2005 and 2010, the networks had 356 significant accidents that killed six people, injured 11 and caused $852 million in cleanup costs.
About SLC's spills
Two leaks from a Chevron pipeline spilled 54,600 gallons of crude oil near Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City's eastern foothills in 2010.
The June 11-12 spill unleashed 33,600 gallons of crude, scarring Red Butte Creek, the Liberty Park pond and parts of the Jordan River. The pipe was repaired and reopened little more than a week later on June 21.
A second spill, on Dec. 1, spewed 21,000 gallons near Red Butte Garden's amphitheater. The pipeline reopened Feb. 1 with safety upgrades. The Liberty Park pond, however, didn't reopen until May 14, 2011.