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Paul Mathews, Cogswell, N.D., Published October 26 2013

Letter: Just who is regulating pipelines?

In review of The Forum’s Oct. 15 editorial, “Pipeline leak spurs questions,” those of us affected by a pipeline corridor should welcome this recent chant for additional state regulatory oversight. The editorial includes “state officials will have to demonstrate that they’re up to the job.” That phrasing is something worthy to be explored.

On May 7, 2011, the Keystone 1 pipeline near Ludden, N.D., developed a leak sourced from a ¾-inch pipe fitting starting at 5:51 a.m., operating at 1,029 pounds per square inch, running 494,140 barrels per day. This leak did not trigger any alarms at the pipeline’s control cente, and the leak continued until an eyewitness called the center to report seeing a geyser of oil from 1½ miles away. After 44 minutes, the leak resulted in up to 500 barrels of spilled Canadian tar sands oil on the ground.

Within a week, the North Dakota Public Service Commission opened a “formal” investigation, calling for company explanations under oath and assembling all related emergency response officials to examine all aspects of the incident. PSC was quoted as saying, “we might have to be more thorough (than federal regulators)” and “there should be some urgency.”

PSC commissioners continued, “There is a larger issue of public confidence.” Locally, Sargent County welcomed this state regulatory interest into a matter of great importance to those of us directly affected by a pipeline corridor placed in some instances by eminent domain by a private, foreign, “for profit” corporation.

On Aug. 29, acting upon our letter inquiring when any investigation would start, the PSC directed its staff to inform us that they were not the agency to act upon our continuing unanswered questions.

To see the Tioga, N.D., event repeating some of the same remarks uttered by public officials now reminds us how shallow these current echoed concerns actually are once other regional or national news paints headlines. In consideration of pipeline risks associated with an industry that can operate in our state “on the honor system,” society should truly find this behavior, where regulatory oversight becomes absent or tardy, unacceptable.

As National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman spoke on July 10 (regarding Enbridge’s Kalamazoo, Mich., spill): “And, from the regulators – upon which the people of Marshall depended for the wellbeing of their community – there was too little regulatory oversight.” She continued, “In this rupture, we saw the operator take advantage of weak regulations. … And (the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA) was ineffective in overseeing Enbridge’s pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures, and public awareness programs and had inadequate review of oil spill response plans.”

The Keystone 1 North Dakota leak could have eclipsed this Tioga spill in 30 hours and could have reached the headwaters of Fargo’s municipal water source had this nearest neighbor/witness to the leak site been away from home for the day. To date, PHMSA has not closed its Corrective Action Order issued June 3, 2011, and yet the PSC has already pulled away from trying to find answers for its state’s residents.

Is the PSC now up to this Tioga event? Perhaps the PSC can demonstrate and renew public faith by acting on the “formal” investigation it currently has on its docket with regards to the Ludden 2011 spill.