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Burst Pipeline's Spill Plan Is None of Your Business, Suggests Regulator

PHMSA has released ExxonMobil's spill response plan for the ruptured Pegasus pipeline—but most of the crucial elements have been completely redacted.

Aug 20, 2013

Federal regulators have released ExxonMobil's 2013 emergency response plan for the pipeline that ruptured in an Arkansas residential neighborhood on March 29, but the document is so heavily redacted that it offers little information about Exxon's preparations for such an accident.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) completely blotted out more than 100 pages of the 290-page document, including Exxon’s worst-case scenario hypothesis and its plans to repair any damage caused by an accident. What remains is emergency contact information for local authorities and Exxon officials and maps of the 850-mile route of the Pegasus pipeline, which also include a few redactions.

PHMSA even redacted part of the ExxonMobil watermark that appears on more than 150 pages of the document.

Most of the redactions are marked as exempted under the (b)(7)(F) code. According to the Department of Justice's Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, exemption 7 "protects law enforcement information that could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual."

PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill said that exemption applies to law enforcement agencies—and that PHMSA is considered a law enforcement agency.

"These [emergency plans] could be used by our pipeline safety enforcement personnel for investigations and verifications," Hill said.

Scott Hodes, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) attorney who previously worked in the Department of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy, said that argument may not be valid. "I don't know if it would hold up in court," Hodes said.

PHMSA posted the documents after InsideClimate News submitted a FOIA request in June, asking for Exxon's emergency response plans between 2004 and 2013—a total of seven documents. The goal was to compare Exxon's response to the spill with the strategy outlined in its emergency plan and to analyze any modifications the company made after it reversed the pipeline’s flow in 2006 to carry diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

On August 1, PHMSA's FOIA officer, Marilyn Burke, notified InsideClimate News that two of those documents—the 2009 and 2013 versions—had been posted on the agency's website.

Ironically, most of the 2009 version of the emergency plan is intact, including the mitigation procedure and worst-case scenario sections. The only redactions are of personal phone numbers for emergency contacts and small portions of the pipeline maps.

Exxon did not respond to questions for this article. But last month Exxon spokesman Aaron Stryk told InsideClimate News that there were few differences in the 2009 and 2013 plans. The contact list and notification section had been updated, he said. And Exxon had changed the amount of time it would take to detect and shut down a section of the pipeline that ruptured.

In the 2009 version Exxon said its estimated total response time was 12 minutes. In the 2013 version, it increased that time to 18 minutes. The increase in response time, Stryk said, "had no meaningful impact on response planning or capabilities."

Hill, the PHMSA spokesman, said he wasn't sure why one plan was heavily redacted and the other wasn't. Perhaps it was due to a staff error, he said. "It's possible that we could have posted the wrong version."

The PHMSA staff is now taking a second look at the 2009 plan to determine if additional redactions need to be made. "It's possible that the version online will be changed," he said. 

The 2011 Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act requires PHMSA to have pipeline operators' most recent response plans on file and to provide a copy to those who request it in writing. The law gives the Secretary of Transportation the right to exclude proprietary and security-sensitive information, resource deployment plans and details of the worst-case scenario, but it doesn't require that the information be redacted.  

Rebecca Craven, program director for the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, has put in a FOIA request for about 40 response plans for pipelines in Michigan and Washington. She said most of the documents she has received so far have been heavily redacted.

"They redact all of the worst-case discharge calculations, most of the maps that show any specific locations of pump stations or main line valves and schematics that show location of valves and elevations," said Craven.

InsideClimate News reviewed 11 of the plans Craven received and found that a majority of the redactions cited exemption (b)(7)(F), reserved for law enforcement records.

In an email exchange between Craven and Burke, the PHMSA FOIA officer, Burke said response plans are "required to be redacted to protect security and personal privacy." Burke said the plans go through "three levels of technical and final approval before the redaction is completed" and she is allowed to release them. Hill said pipeline operators are not involved in the redaction process.

In the email exchange, Burke said she is PHMSA's only FOIA officer and that she gets over 160 FOIA requests a year.

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