Opinion: Meaningful restrictions needed if pipeline OK’d
On Nov. 21 and 22, I attended the Pipeline Safety Trust’s annual conference in New Orleans. Because Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) initially planned to construct their Addison Natural Gas Project (ANGP) through the middle of my town of Monkton, I was invited to speak on a panel with two other people whose lives have been affected by pipelines. Conference attendees included people from industry, regulatory agencies, state and local governments, activists, and ordinary citizens. It is one of the few events where such a diverse mix comes together to focus strictly on the issue of pipeline safety.
Between the battle over the Keystone XL and the proliferation of new pipelines caused by the fracking boom, in the last few years the subject of how to safely route pipelines has gained a much higher public profile nationally. The lack of enforceable land use guidelines for siting pipelines through populated areas was a recurrent theme running through many conference presentations.
Although standards and best practices exist for guiding new development that is to be located adjacent to existing pipelines, for reasons that are mostly political, the same recommendations aren’t applied when putting a pipeline through existing population centers. This is the case even though the subsequent risks are the same regardless of which comes first.
This politically motivated decision has left very large holes in the regulatory safety net. The head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) Cynthia Quarterman’s keynote address at the conference made the following points:
• PHMSA has just 200 employees, responsible for 2.6 million miles of pipeline, and there are only 135 pipeline inspectors.
• The agency’s budget has been level-funded for the past three years at $165 million, despite thousands of new miles of pipelines going in all over the country. (By comparison, the Federal Aviation Administration, another agency tasked with keeping America safe from low-probability/high-consequence events, has an annual budget of $15 billion.)
• PHMSA is prohibited by statute from exercising authority over pipeline routing or siting decisions, and also, it does not have authority over intrastate projects such as the ANGP.
Consequently, PHMSA has delegated a large part of the necessary siting and inspection regimen to the states. Meanwhile, representatives from various state and municipal entities at the conference called for better national regulations to strengthen protection for their citizens, and spoke of their frustration with the lack of progress in this area. So, while federal officials are relying on the states to take a significant oversight role, states are simultaneously looking to the feds for more guidance and support.
In Vermont, because we have only a few pipelines, a state regulatory system doesn’t even exist. While Vermont’s forward-thinking land use laws have well-established statutes for siting around wetlands, natural resources and archaeological sites, there is nothing to prevent a pipeline from being sited so as to place homes within a Potential Impact Area (PIA), the calculated area within which everything would be obliterated if an accident were to occur.
Instead, the standard industry practice is to develop a route, identify possible areas of heightened risk, then to manage those ensuing risks that they have created, rather than siting the pipeline in a way that would reduce or eliminate that risk in the first place.
This is as unfortunate as it is unnecessary. Vermont is not a densely populated state. As a matter of public safety, the Public Service Board (PSB) could require VGS to develop a route away from homes or schools in the same way that they are tasked with avoiding other named obstacles.
Currently the pipeline route is proposed to be within 500 feet of the Allen Brook School in Williston and the Bridge School in Middlebury. The Nov. 14, 2013, explosion in Milford, Texas, of a 10-inch liquid petroleum gas line was witnessed by a school full of children just a half-mile away. Had the rupture been just a few hundred feet closer to them, it could have been a catastrophe of national significance. If there are no injuries, pipeline ruptures in rural areas don’t always make national news, but they are not infrequent.
In a state where fire protection services are largely volunteer and hydrants almost nonexistent, having homes and other buildings within the PIA is clearly a violation of the Public Health and Safety mandate of Section 248(b)(5), one of the PSB’s criteria. Nowhere in its voluminous petition filings has VGS demonstrated a credible way to quickly extinguish any fire caused by a rupture in the main transmission line because the hard truth is, there is none. The standard course of action is to stand back and let all of the fuel between safety valves (which are eight miles apart) burn off.
There is simply no substitute for distance as the most cost-effective safety mechanism, as there is no effective way to risk-manage away unpredictable events such as natural disasters or the excavation mishaps that continue to be a leading source of pipeline accidents.
This is why I have urged the PSB, as the ultimate permitting authority for pipelines in the state, to use its power to ensure that the ANGP, if approved, is sited in the safest possible manner. VGS should be required to observe the very reasonable setbacks requested by the town of Monkton for ALL residences along the pipeline route, and to greatly increase the zone of exclusion around schools. It should not be left to town governments, which do not have the expertise to know what setbacks are necessary, to ask for these kinds of common sense protections. Too often, towns incorrectly assume that there is some authority somewhere looking out for their interests, when in fact there is not.
It is sobering to sit in a room full of people and listen to story after story of how lives were upended, homes destroyed and properties ruined due to pipeline accidents. Landowners, city administrators, and mayors from places like Mayflower, Ark.; Allentown, Pa.; and San Bruno, Calif., spoke of devastating damage, life-altering injuries and lives lost. None of these people ever expected to find themselves in such a position; they also thought that somewhere, somebody was looking out for them.
No doubt VGS would like to get its pipeline into the ground before Vermonters can have a meaningful dialog on this topic. It is my hope that the PSB fulfills its responsibility to look out for the safety of all citizens as required in Section 248 (b)(5), and mandate some meaningful restrictions so that no town in Vermont ever has to be added to Wikipedia’s unfortunate and extensive “List of pipeline accidents in the United States in the 21st century”.
Mark A. Nelson of Bristol
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