Last winter’s oil pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River near Glendive prompted Montana Senator Steve Daines to call a field hearing on pipeline safety in Billings, which happened today.
The Senate is working on a bill reauthorizing the federal agency that oversees pipelines and hazardous materials. Senator Jon Tester also participated in the hearing.
This U.S. Senate field hearing comes just months after a pipeline spilled crude in the Yellowstone River near Glendive. Then in 2011 there was another major pipeline break in the Yellowstone near Laurel. It was the backdrop against which Marie Therese Dominguez testified. She took over the helm of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or PHMSA about a month and a half ago.
"The recent spills in Montana are unacceptable and they underscore the importance of PHMSA’s safety mission," Dominguez testified.
She says PHMSA will work with its partners in state and local government as well as industry to prevent future incidents. This includes using horizontal drilling at river crossings to widen the margin between the riverbed and the pipeline.
When asked by the Committee’s Chair Senator Deb Fisher about the issue of safety, Dominguez says this effort is more than just pipelines.
"Our responsibility at PHMSA is to make sure – our mission at PHMSA – is to make sure the safe transportation of all hazardous materials regardless of mode," Dominguez said. "So as you know, we work both with rail, freight, highway and pipeline to make sure that every mode that we’re working with is as safe as possible."
"And how do pipelines compare?" Senator Fisher asked.
"Pipelines are very safe," Dominguez answered. "We’re doing everything we can for every mode of transportation to make sure that they are as safe as possible regardless of the mode."
Dominguez thanks Congress for the funding to add more than 100 new positions for inspections and enforcement. She planned to discuss the addition of another inspector for Montana during her visit in the state.
Todd Denton is the President of Phillips 66 Pipeline. He praises the quality of PHMSA inspectors, but he says there’s still room for improvement.
"Getting inspection results out sooner. Potentially it takes months sometimes before we see those and in the meantime we may be having another inspection where if we had those results we could be implementing those improvements."
The length of time between inspections has been mentioned after a series of pipeline accidents. Senator Steve Daines says those incidents add a sense of urgency to this field hearing.
"In fact you heard one of the responses I had, ‘how long does it take for an inspection report to get back to the operator?’ And it was ‘a year.’ That is unacceptable," Daines said."Boy if we find deficiencies we’ve got to make sure those inspection reports are given back to the operators as quickly as possible. That’s unacceptable. And I asked the administrator, I want you to develop clear metrics and hold your agency accountable."
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will continue to accept public comments on pipeline safety for the next two weeks.
The Committee chairwoman says she expects re-authorization of PHMSA will take place within the next several months