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Federal Pipeline Safety Agency’s Dangerous Response to COVID-19

Over the past few weeks, we have all felt the impacts of the coronavirus impact, sacrificing public gatherings, visiting with family and friends, income, and much more to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the pandemic and the reponse by one federal agency may force some communities to pay an even larger price.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is responsible for regulating pipeline and hazardous material safety (including liquefied natural gas – LNG) and protecting communities from potentially fatal leaks and explosions.

PHMSA’s own data shows there has been an increase in the number of significant pipeline incidents (those resulting in fatality, bodily injury, volatile liquid releases, or at least $50,000 in total costs) over the past decade. Recently, Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust recently testified to Congress stating: “Also of concern is that for gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines, over 65 percent of the significant failures in the past decade are from causes the operators ought to have control over such as corrosion, incorrect operations, equipment failures, and problems with the materials they use and the welds they make.”

But in response to agency predictions of resource and personnel constraints due to COVID-19, PHMSA announced sweeping rollbacks of its safety and training requirements, putting public health and safety in the hands of potentially unskilled, unqualified, and impaired workers.

The agency claims these actions are necessary so that pipeline operators can continue with “normal operations and [protect] the health and safety of their personnel and the public (PHMSA notice, March 20).” PHMSA’s announcement further encourages state pipeline safety officers to turn a blind eye to worker noncompliance “in the interest of prompt and efficient pipeline safety activities.” These actions only serve industry interests and timelines and put communities living and working near explosive pipelines and LNG plants at direct risk.

Relaxing drug testing requirements for safety inspectors has caused a number of pipeline experts to speak out: “In this short term, I personally find it hard to understand relaxing drug testing and control room regulations that could prevent a potential incident in an already stretched state of emergency,” Lynda Farrell, founder of the Pipeline Safety Coalition recently told Bloomberg Environment. The rollbacks would allow pipeline operators to use discretion in deciding whether workers are able to perform monitoring and testing tasks, allowing employers to conduct drug tests at a later date and rely on pre-employment negative drug tests. Both scheduled and random drug testing are no longer required of pipeline safety operators during this stay.

There is no doubt that resources across the country are under strain, and those still employed during the State of Emergency are having to adapt to changing business practices and workplace environments. This does not excuse PHMSA of its responsibility to safeguard our public safety. While the rollbacks of safety and training requirements are expected to be lifted after the current pandemic, potential public safety impacts will be long-lasting.

Contact your Attorney General Josh Stein and the Pipeline Safety Division of the NC Utilities Commission and demand pipeline operators don’t turn a blind eye to noncompliance, only employ highly trained and skilled workers, and require scheduled and randomized drug testing.

Pipeline safety section of the Utilities Commission contacts: https://www.ncuc.net/Industries/naturalgas/pipelinesafety.html

How to contact AG Stein: https://ncdoj.gov/contact-doj/

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