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February 08, 2013
Reporting pipeline accidents

In the hectic minutes following discovery of a gas or hazardous liquid pipeline accident or incident, an operator should not let the many emergency tasks that must be promptly implemented distract from the initial regulatory obligation–contacting the National Response Center (NRC) with accurate and complete (as complete as possible) information about the extent of the damage.  In accordance with the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is now advising operators about an upcoming rule that will require that the NRC be notified of an incident or accident within     one hour of its discovery.

(In its regulations, PHMSA refers to the release of natural gas from a pipeline as an incident and a spill from a hazardous liquid pipeline as an accident.)

Two-hour limit

PHMSA currently requires that operators provide notices to the NRC “at the earliest practicable moment following discovery,” but the regulations do not provide a specific time frame.  PHMSA has advised operators that it interprets the phrase to mean “usually one to two hours” after discovery.  Notification can be either by telephone to 800-424-8802 (in Washington, D.C., 202-267-2675) or electronically at http://www.nrc.uscg.mil.

Minimum information to be reported includes:

  • The name of the operator
  • The name and telephone number of the person making the report
  • The location of the incident
  • The number of fatalities and injuries, and
  • All other significant facts that are relevant to the cause of the incident or extent of the damage.

“Practice” the one-hour limit

The 2011 legislation directs PHMSA to amend the current notification requirements at 49 CFR 191.5 (natural gas) and 49 CFR 195.52 (hazardous liquid) within 18 months after January 3, 2012, by establishing specific time limits for notification; those limits may not exceed one hour following discovery. PHMSA says it will issue a proposed rule at a later date, but encourages operators “as a practice” to begin reporting accidents and incidents within one hour of confirmed discovery. 

Revised notice

Apart from the one-hour time limit, the legislation specifies several additional actions that must be taken regarding notification after an incident.  These include requiring the secretary of transportation to review and if necessary, revise procedures for operators and the NRC to provide thorough and coordinated notification to all relevant state and local emergency response officials, including 911 emergency call centers, for the jurisdictions in which those pipeline facilities are located.

Also within 48 hours after the incident and to the extent practicable, operators will be required to revise their initial telephonic or electronic notice with an estimate of the amount of product released, an estimate of the number of any fatalities and injuries, and any other information determined appropriate by the secretary.

PHMSA’s advisory notice bulletin on incident and accident response times was published in the January 30, 2013, FR.

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