Pipeline's gasoline spills calls for reevaluation

A gasoline pipeline in Alabama that exploded recently may soon be reopened. The blast left one person dead and five others injured. This same pipeline was the site of the largest gasoline spill in years just last September, which led to long lines at gas stations in southern United States.

The pipeline is 5,500 miles long and carries more than three million barrels of gasoline and fuel from the Gulf Coast to the New York Harbor. Colonial Pipeline Inc., the parent company, is looking into opening certain parts of the pipeline since the shutdown restricted gasoline supply to millions of U.S. citizens.

The blast also caused two wildfires that burned through 31 acres of land that was already plagued by a severe drought for several weeks. Residents within three miles of the blast site were evacuated.

The leak in September put the pipeline out of service for 12 days, leading to long lines at pumps and higher gas prices in Georgia and Tennessee. In response to this latest episode, the governors of Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina temporarily lifted trucking guidelines to prevent any spikes in gas prices. This was a start toward improving the situation, but the action clearly does not alleviate all of the burdens off citizens. For now, the spike in prices has been relatively small.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration only recently opened its investigation. It seems to have already concluded that it was a freak accident. A piece of excavation equipment appeared to have hit the pipeline, causing the explosion. The origin of the piece still remains a mystery. PHMSA needs more resources to ensure the safety of U.S. pipelines and their workers. The explosion is saddening not only because of the deaths but because this could have easily been prevented if the proper resources and regulations were in place.

The next step is a reevaluation of the PHMSA. The PHMSA needs more inspectors to help cover the pipeline as there are only 188 inspectors. Additionally, administrative changes need to be made in order to improve the response rate of the PHMSA to its new rules and regulations.

Stricter fines and penalties would also make companies like Colonial comply faster and make substantive safety improvements. Failure to do so will only lead to more spills and environmental damage, even the loss of other lives. In the long term, it would fare better for the nation to turn to cleaner and safer forms of energy. This, however, is unlikely to happen as the pipeline would be too difficult to replace immediately.

Federal auditors have found out that the PHMSA has missed 75 percent of its deadlines for responding to new regulations. Provisions passed by Congress in 2011 have still not been written. The PHMSA is understaffed, which evidently results in dire consequences. Colonial has stated it instituted several changes to comply with the corrective orders. The PHMSA says if it finds any wrongdoing on Colonial’s part, financial penalties can be levied or a criminal case can be arranged.