The new CDC’s MMWR (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) discusses gas pipeline incidents in 7 states between 2010-2012, stating gas pipelines have “the potential to cause mass casualties and environmental contamination.” It concluded federal “strategies to prevent releases are needed,” including comprehensive worker training regarding ruptured line prevention and education to inform public to recognize a gas leak and know what to do.
Why is the CDC now involved in hyping the dangers of pipelines?
Here we have another government agency marketing the Administration’s war on fossil fuels and pipelines.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, with an annual budget of over $76 million, is not the primary agency for oil and hazardous materials response. In 1990, it established the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system to collect data on releases of hazardous substances that require cleanup or neutralization or that result in public health action. 15 state health departments participate in HSEES. “It is the only federal database specifically designed to address the public health effects from releases of hazardous substances.”
But it has never included petroleum products in its definition of a hazardous substance …until 2010, when it established a National Toxic Substance Incidents Program (NTSIP) to describe the incidences and health impacts of petroleum product release incidents, including gas explosions and oil spills. Fewer than half of the states in HSEES participated. Citing 2-year NTSIP data from 7 states, the MMWR reports that petroleum incidents accounted for 15.8% of all toxic substance releases and that most involved utilities.
To ill-informed politicians and consumers, this report seems more proof of the dangers of gas pipelines and the failure of industry to protect the public, and the need for more federal oversight.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Pipeline safety has long been heavily regulated by federal and state agencies, which also set and enforce comprehensive safety standards (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49:190-199 ) that are followed by industry in installing, operating and maintaining pipelines. Federally, those agencies are the U.S. Dept of Transportation, Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and its Office of Pipeline Safety, which also coordinate with nearly a dozen other federal agencies, which include the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Department of Energy (DOE), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard.
PHMSA is the primary agency in protecting the public from the risks from hazardous materials being transported. Not only is it notified of and investigates all incidents, it establishes national safety standards the industry follows, education and training for the public and first responders, inspections, research and enforcement. The pipeline industry itself has contributed extraordinary advances in the technology of materials, design and procedures in construction; preventive maintenance, including pipeline integrity programs and cathodic protection to protect pipes from corrosion; testing; and sophisticated round-the-clock monitoring of pipelines; and work with local and regional emergency personnel to train and coordinate emergency responses.
There is no evidence that another government agency program is needed to improve public safety or that pipelines are unsafe.
Pipelines move unimaginable amounts of natural gas, oil and other liquids to meet our country’s energy needs. There are 2.6 million miles of pipelines throughout the country. As PHMSA states, pipelines are the safest, cleanest and most cost-effective and practical way to move these liquids compared to any other form of transportation. The amount running through a single modest pipeline (150,000 barrels a day) would take a constant line of 750 tanker trucks a day, loading and moving out every 2 minutes around-the-clock. Few people want trucks constantly driving through their communities, with the associated impacts of noise, exhaust, vehicular accidents, waste of fossil fuels, and wear-and-tear to the roadways!
Pipelines are safer than ever, even though they now carry 70% of all the oil transported in the country. According to the PHSMA, pipeline incidents have dropped 10% every three years over the past quarter century, with time-critical incidents down 36% just in the past ten years. “Contrary to popular perceptions,” reported environmental scientist Dagmar Schmidt Edkin, Ph.D., “[based on EPA data] over the past 30 years, the annual number of pipeline spills has decreased by 500%” and the amounts spilled have also dropped, with “90% of spills under 1,000 gallons.”
Incidences are sensationalized in the news, but rarely put into perspective, leading some to fear they’re far more consequential than they really are. PHMSA translated nationwide pipeline spills into household terms: less than one teaspoon of oil is spilled per thousand barrel-miles, clearly not the pollution issue that some depict. Most of us have probably spilled more than that changing the oil in our truck! We are also rarely told that companies later recover much of spills.
So, putting the latest CDC report into perspective, it’s clearly more about politics than health.