Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
[Benicia Independent Editor: This analysis of a pipeline failure might also shed some light on the lack of adequate State and Federal oversight of crude by rail. No PHMSA administrator for 7 months?! Only 3 state inspectors!? Information not shared with first responders at the County level!? Gosh … where have we heard this before? – RS]
EDITORIAL: Did lack of oversight lead to Santa Barbara spill?San Francisco Chronicle, May 31, 2015
All-too-familiar images of picture-postcard California beaches befouled with crude last month revealed that regulatory oversight is sadly lacking. But whom to blame? The accountable parties are missing in action.
First missing party: The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration has been without an administrator for more than 210 days, thus exceeding the legal limit for an acting director to serve. The May 19 rupture of the Plains All American Pipeline at Refugio and El Capitan state beaches in Santa Barbara County heightened concerns the federal regulators weren’t protecting the public safety or sensitive lands.
On Thursday, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, sent a letter to the pipeline administration, declaring the Santa Barbara oil spill response “insufficient,” and giving the agency two weeks to answer questions about spill response plans, legal authority to require automatic shutoff valves, and cleanup and response efforts that ignored local knowledge and expertise. On Friday, the Obama administration announced it had a nominee, lawyer Marie Therese Dominguez, for the pipeline administrator’s job.
Second missing party: Oil transport and spill oversight in California is overseen by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, but there are only three full-time inspectors. Inspectors would leave for higher paying industry jobs as soon as the state trained them. In 2012, the fire marshal requested the authority to pay inspectors more — inspectors are paid out of a state account funded with fees paid by the oil companies — but the Legislature said no, and state oil transport oversight was ceded to the federal agency in 2013.
Third missing party: Santa Barbara County had an agreement with the pipeline owner that was overridden by federal law. Pipeline operators must file oil spill response plans with the federal agency, but due to terrorism concerns, they aren’t available to the public (including first responders who would have needed local knowledge).
Clear lines of oversight, more inspectors, and a requirement to update spill response plans would help build trust with communities over transport of this necessary energy resource.