Curtis Tate Published

Safety Watchdog Has Its Eyes On The Mountain Valley Pipeline

A large section of green pipe lies on the ground in front of a large blue water storage tank and a residence.
A site in Lafayette, Virginia, where water was pumped into the pipeline for pressure tests.
Curtis Tate/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) failed a water pressure test in Virginia earlier this month. The Pipeline Safety Trust urged federal regulators to take a close look at the failure. Curtis Tate spoke with the organization’s executive director, Bill Caram, about its concerns with the project.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tate: What are some possible causes of a pipeline failure during a water pressure test?

Caram: Unfortunately, we don’t know much about why the pipe failed the hydro test. There’s so many possible reasons for that failure, some of which would call into question the integrity of the entire pipeline and others could be very narrow and specific to one manufacturing defect on that one piece that once you replace it, you’re fine. So we really don’t know enough to know how concerned or not concerned the public should be about the integrity of the pipeline because of that hydro test failure. 

One of the big problems is there isn’t a lot of transparency and because of capacity limitations at the federal safety regulator (the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, PHMSA), really a lot is left up to the operators to conduct all these inspections and tests, and then PHMSA comes in after the fact and basically checks their records on the tests and inspections that they did. Really a lot is left up to the operators and so there’s very little transparency involved, because it’s not the regulator’s doing these inspections in these tests.

Tate: A lot of groups, and state and local officials, have urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to deny the MVP’s in-service request. Why did your organization stop short of calling for that?

Caram: Again, because we don’t know enough about why the test failed, we came short of asking for FERC to deny the permit. What we really hope is that the federal regulators, the safety regulator, PHMSA and FERC, issuing the permit are fully informed of exactly what went wrong in that hydro test and that they have their hands in it, and that there are answers to that, before any permit is approved. Ideally, all of that would be made available to the public as well. That’s really what we want to see and what we want to know. I don’t think you can say, just because a pipeline failed a hydro test means it’s unfit for service. But it could, and so we would know exactly what went wrong and why and that there is an assurance to the public that the pipeline will be safe once it’s put into service. And that they’re transparent enough that the public really does feel really reassured, and I don’t think any of that is happening right now.

Tate: The Pipeline Safety Trust was founded after a fatal pipeline explosion. Can you tell us more about what you do?

Caram: We were founded after a pipeline tragedy here in Bellingham, Washington. In 1999, a hazardous liquid pipeline carrying gasoline ruptured and it spilled a quarter million gallons of gasoline into a creek that runs through the middle of town. It eventually ignited and it killed three boys, two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old. The families of those boys and the community, as they learned more and more about what went wrong in that pipeline tragedy, about the egregious actions, negligence from the operator and the complete lack of oversight from the federal government, they began calling for a national watchdog organization on the pipeline industry and its regulators. They lobbied to the Department of Justice to help found this organization and they were successful. 

When the settlement of the Olympic Pipeline Company happened, the criminal settlement, part of the money that they had to pay was set aside to form that watchdog organization and that’s what became the Pipeline Safety Trust. We work on a national level trying to bring accountability to both the pipeline industry and its regulators, both the federal and state regulators and to make pipelines safer to try to prevent any other community from having to go through the senseless grief from these preventable failures and tragedies that plagued Bellingham.

Tate: Is it appropriate for people who work for pipeline companies to be appointed to lead the agency that regulates them?

Caram: No industry polices itself well. It’s a hard balance to find where you want someone who is informed enough about the industry and the technical particulars to be an effective regulator. But you also don’t want someone who is part of that industry, because they don’t police themselves well, that can be a difficult balance to strike. I would rather err on the side of being an objective third party than having an industry insider. 

But I think the biggest problem with the federal regulations is really the amount of resources that are given from Congress. There is no way that they can be as effective of a regulator that we need in this country. Given the resources that they’re provided from Congress, they need a lot more. They also have a lot of restrictions put on them by Congress, where they’re adopting a new regulation. If it’s construction, or design standard, or things like that, it can’t apply to existing pipelines, it can only apply to new and replaced pipelines. They’re the only safety regulator in the country to have this in their defining statute. Where they cannot do a really extensive cost benefit analysis of any rule. And they have to justify any new rule by weighing how much it’s going to cost the industry versus what the benefits are. We’re talking about people’s lives. That really seems inappropriate to us as a safety watchdog.

Tate: What are your broader concerns about MVP?

Caram: We have a very large high pressure pipeline here when we’re talking about the Mountain Valley Pipeline. And through very steep terrain that has a history of land movement and landslides with pipe that was left out in the sun, damaging UV rays for far longer than the manufacturer’s recommendations. I don’t think we can be too careful. And I don’t think that the regulator and the operator can be too transparent. I think there’s a responsibility of the operator and the regulator to ensure that the community around this pipeline feel safe.

And I do want to commend PHMSA for issuing that safety order that became the consent agreement between Equitrans (the pipeline’s builder) and PHMSA that does take some extra steps. But the next step is assuring the public that, that consent agreement is on track and is being met as they as Equitrans seeks the permit to start the pipeline up.