I spent a lot of time over the course of my career thinking about infrastructure, because I was in a line of work that prepared to respond to mass casualty events. After we were attacked, we stepped it up and added drills that were meant to prepare us to mount a response to a catastrophic event on the scale of first the Oklahoma City bombing and then 9/11.

But primarily, we prepared for civil eventualities. Storms and massive pileups on the interstate, mostly; and every fall we drilled for a flu/respiratory infection epidemic.

Then there were the ones that made me have nightmares later. They involved infrastructure disasters. Bridges and tunnels and pipelines exploding into gigantic fireballs. And the thing that bothered me the most about those drills were the fact that I knew they were 1) lkely and 2) wholly preventable.

Every year when the American Society of Civil Engineers came out with their Infrastructure Report Card, hard copies would be printed out and put in the mailbox of every department head and everyone who had anything to do with trauma and mass casualty response. The “top three” infrastructure concerns for our area were highlighted, and a memo would be attached telling us when the staff meeting in which we would plan our drill was scheduled. We worked off the report card for purpose of relevance.

When I lived on the west coast, it was just assumed in those meetings that if we had a major quake, there would be many, many, many gas fires because there were thousands of miles of aging pipeline and the likelihood was that a major quake could affect hundreds of them. There would be ruptures, fires and explosions. When we bought a house in Oregon, we bought one that was off the gas grid in a part of town where gas wasn’t piped into the older, solidly-constructed houses that were heated by pellet stoves, or had propane tanks in the back yard. That was a consideration when we bought. (Ask my husband – I totally take the fun out of house hunting.)  

At a Christmas Eve gathering in 2008, a natural gas explosion in a suburban Sacramento neighborhood killed a 72-year-old man and injured his daughter and granddaughter. Investigators determined that Pacific Gas and Electric was to blame for a leak, but federal and state regulators never cited the utility for safety violations.

It was one example of what many experts and studies say is weak oversight of gas pipelines in the United States, a problem that has contributed to hundreds of pipeline episodes that have killed 60 people and injured 230 others in the last five years. Those figures do not include the final toll of the explosion of another Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline this month in San Bruno, Calif., that left seven people dead and more than 50 injured.

Though the cause of that explosion was still under investigation, it was the latest event to raise concerns among safety experts. Several independent government reviews, going back several years, have found systemic problems with the way the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency in charge of pipeline oversight, enforces safety rules.

In 2004, for example, the General Accounting Office documented how pipeline safety enforcement “needs further strengthening.” It noted that average fines of less than $30,000 offered little deterrence and that the agency had trouble collecting the fines.

A 2008 Congressional Research Service report said that the enforcement strategy of federal agencies of the nation’s pipelines was an “ongoing concern.”

“I believe there is a lack of a strong safety culture in the natural gas industry,” said Jim Hall, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and an experienced pipeline investigator. “When you have a lack of enforcement activity, you end up with a tragedy.”

Lack of enforcement activity?

That’s something of an understatement. And by “something of an understatement” I mean that’s the understatement of the fucking year because enforcement activity was all but non-existent during the Bush years. An investigation by the New York Times found that a third of the cases opened in the last eight years are still open, and more than a few that were opened in the early nineties are still open and unresolved. The oversight agency is such a shambles it has lost track of what has been resolved, what is still pending, what fines have been paid, what fines are outstanding for so long the offenders would be arrested for contempt if the cases were civil and against an individual.

And still the agency defends it’s work while lobbyists for industry trade groups insist that pipelines are safer than the rocking chair on your grandmothers front porch; and utility companies always blame incidents on other actors when something goes wrong, even thought when incidents happen and the feds investigate, it’s almost always the utility that is at fault.

I have said for years – ever since the first time I sat in one of those mass casualty drill planning sessions in an earthquake zone – that a single federal agency needs to directly oversee all energy pipelines, and in theory that is the case. But in practice, state agencies oversee most of the miles of pipelines in this country, and the feds oversee those that cross state lines.

The state agencies operate with federal dollars, the inspectors are trained by the feds, and certification to inspect comes from the feds. All rules stem from federal guidelines.

But…

The actual amount of actual oversight that actually gets done varies wildly from state to state.

Now, throw in all the safety waivers that have been issued…What’s that you say? You don’t believe you read that right? Oh, yes, you did. There really is such a thing as a safety waiver, issued by the federal pipeline agency, that allows companies to ignore certain safety regulations and standards in the construction of pipelines that carry volatile hydrocarbons all over the country and into our homes. “That is one of the areas where we have a lot of concern, especially the drain on the agency with the volume of requests for exemptions,” said Carl Weimer, head of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit, federally-funded watchdog organization that was established in response to a fatal blast in Bellingham, Wash in 1999. He believes that companies seeking exceptions should have to pay fees that would cover the cost of handling the requests.  

Meanwhile, the pipeline agency has started acting like it takes it’s oversight rule seriously under this administration. They are changing the system by which waivers are issued, and they are reviewing waivers that were issued before the adults came to town with an eye to toughening up some of the ones that have already been issued and putting a five-year limit on all exceptions granted, rather than keeping them in place indefinitely when that is what the company wanted.

This is some of that change I can believe in. It isn’t sexy or glamorous or flashy, so it doesn’t get the attention of the press. It’s just basic nuts-and-bolts good government. It’s the sort of thing that affects every single one of us in small, subtle ways that we never, ever think about unless something blows up and catches our attention for a minute. It’s one of those things where you measure success by how much they are taken for granted by the population at large.