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Ark. Oil Spill Probe Falls to Understaffed Agency With Close Industry Ties

Underfunded agency faces the challenge of finding answers to key questions: When did Exxon's pipeline rupture and when did the company learn of the spill?

Apr 22, 2013
PHSMA Exxon oil spill

Just a day after roughly one million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil spilled into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it was launching a formal investigation into the incident. It quickly set up shop in a local hotel and conducted dozens of interviews with pipeline workers, local officials and residents. It did field and laboratory analysis of the ruptured pipeline in its own labs. And its investigators pored over the responsible company’s records to recreate what happened.

After two years of work, the agency released the results of its investigation: The spill was caused by major lapses in safety by Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's owner and operator, and by "weak regulations" for the entire U.S. pipeline network.

The NTSB has taken none of these steps since the March 29 pipeline break in Mayflower, Ark., where an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil spilled into a neighborhood of neat brick houses. In fact, the independent federal agency hasn't investigated any oil pipeline spills since Kalamazoo, even though information about the risks of transporting oil through pipelines is in high demand as thousands of miles of new pipelines—including the Keystone XL—are being proposed.

"We just don't have the resources to investigate everything," Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, told InsideClimate News. Holloway said the agency investigates only when there is significant loss of life, extensive damage to the environment, or if the incident is something the agency hasn't seen before. The final decision on whether to investigate is generally made by the agency's Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials, he said.

According to federal data, a significant pipeline spill of hazardous liquids—one that involves 50 barrels or more—occurs somewhere in the United States every three days on average. In the last three years there have been four crude oil spills as big or bigger than the Arkansas spill. The difference is that the Arkansas rupture drew national attention because it dumped oil into a residential neighborhood and forced 22 families from their homes.

When the NTSB passed on investigating the Arkansas spill, that task fell to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation that is responsible for developing and enforcing regulations for 2.5 million miles of pipelines.

While the NTSB's primary responsibility is to conduct investigations, that isn't the case with PHMSA. The agency's primary goal is setting regulations, not investigations.

Having PHMSA rather than the NTSB looking into the spill has raised concerns about the objectiveness of the final report.

"PHMSA could have the best of all intentions, but its role in the pipeline regulatory process means that it is susceptible to influence from industry and lobbyists," said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., a pipeline consulting firm based in Redmond, Wash.

A 2011 investigation by the New York Times revealed that PHMSA is underfunded and understaffed. Some of the agency's employees also have professional ties to the fossil fuel industry. PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman, for example, served as legal counsel for Enbridge, the culprit in the Michigan spill, before moving to her current position at the federal agency.

Kathryn Douglass, staff counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), has been examining PHMSA's relationship with oil and gas companies. Using information gathered through Freedom of Information Act requests, she recently discovered that more than 99 percent of the meetings high-ranking PHMSA officials attend are with members of the pipeline industry. 

PHMSA has "demonstrated its willingness to bend over backwards for the industry," she told InsideClimate News. "It wouldn’t surprise me if they closely involved Exxon in the investigation."

According to reports from Arkansas, ExxonMobil is largely running the show in Mayflower.

The damaged section of the company's pipeline is being sent to Hurst Metallurgical Research Laboratory, Inc. in Euless, Texas, a third-party lab chosen by ExxonMobil and approved by PHMSA, said Patricia Klinger, deputy director of the Office of Governmental, International, and Public Affairs for PHMSA. After the 2010 Michigan spill, the damaged Enbridge pipe was trucked to the National Transportation Safety Board's own facility in Ashburn, Va., so it could be studied as part of the NTSB investigation.

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