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article imageNew data: Pipeline leaks caused by human error are increasing

By Karen Graham     Jan 29, 2017 in Technology
New data compiled by Canada's National Energy Board shows that pipeline leaks have increased fourfold annually, with human error increasingly being a factor in the incidents.
Data compiled by Canada's National Energy Board shows that in the past three years, "incorrect operation" — and this includes everything from failing to follow correct procedures to the improper use of equipment has increasingly become a factor in pipeline leaks, according to CTV News.
NEB data shows that pipeline leaks where human error may have been a factor have increased to 20 a year, compared to an average of four annually in the previous six years.
And while the data applies to pipelines in Canada, the United States is also having the same problem, according to statistics compiled by the Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust.
Husky pipeline spills oil into the North Saskatchewan River.
Husky pipeline spills oil into the North Saskatchewan River.
CTV Calgary
"It's both probably one of the most difficult things for an organization to deal with, but also the most important," said Mark Fleming, a professor of safety culture at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Although Fleming agrees that safety practice improvements have been made in the industry, achieving the level of safety required of the airline or nuclear power industry would require extreme attention to detail. "Safety, particularly very high levels of safety, requires constant attention and effort," Fleming says. "And the tendency is for it to degrade."
Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust says pipelines built in the U.S. in the last five years have the highest rate of failure of any pipelines built in the past 20 years, and that is a startling statistic.
"A lot of new pipelines being put in the ground just aren't being installed right, or things don't get tightened up quite enough, so within the first year or two things fail," said Weimer.
The improper management of pipelines, including fully following proper procedures, such as burying pipelines deep enough, tightening bolts properly and a lack of frequent enough inspections are all examples of human error that often results in oil or gas being released into the environment, soaking the land and coursing down rivers and into bodies of water.
National Energy Board - Canada
As an example, Alberta Energy Regulator investigations into Plains Midstream Canada found that the company was not only not inspecting its pipelines frequently enough, but they did a poor job of managing the ground around the pipelines and they had not adequately trained their control room staff.
"There's been a lot of learnings in our industry that has resulted from some very unfortunate incidents," said Patrick Smyth, vice-president of safety and engineering at the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA). Smyth says that companies associated with CEPA have improved their safety practices and are using better inspection tools.
Cross-border pipeline safety in Canada is regulated by the National Energy Board. This means the NEB regulates 98 companies having 73,000 kilometers (45,360 miles) of pipelines.
The National Energy Board Act is the legal framework that ensures that federally-regulated pipelines are designed, constructed, operated and abandoned in a manner that is safe for the public and the environment.
Site of Belle Fourche Pipeline leak into Ash Coulee Creek.
Site of Belle Fourche Pipeline leak into Ash Coulee Creek.
North Dakota Department of Health/Jennifer Skjod
Pipeline Regulation in the U.S.
In the United States, the Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issues pipeline safety regulations addressing construction, operation, and maintenance, inspects pipeline operators, and enforces violations of pipeline safety laws and regulations.
PHMSA approves some state agencies to exercise interstate inspection authority and/or intrastate inspection and enforcement authority. And in many cases, the state agencies are members of the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives (NAPSR).
It's interesting to note that while the Pipeline Safety Trust says that pipelines built in the U.S. over the last five years have the highest rate of failure, the PHMSA says that in the last five years, "the number of large pipeline incidents has decreased markedly. Pipeline incidents per mile larger than 500 barrels are down 32 percent from 2011 to 2015 while the number of incidents 50 barrels or larger per mile are down 12 percent. during the same years.
According to InsideEnergy, there are 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the U.S. Since 2010, there have been 4,269 accidents, leaks, and spills that resulted in 474 people being injured and 100 people being killed. So yes, the threat is real.
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