Toolbox: Pipeline Maps Offer Starting Point for Local Stories

October 6, 2010

The federal government has kept its national pipeline maps a secret from the public since 9/11, even though terrorists can buy better ones on the open market no questions asked. But the limited local oil and gas pipeline maps you can get from the feds offer environmental reporters a starting point for stories that could save lives.

A bigger threat than terrorists to lives and the environment may be corroded pipelines in densely populated neighborhoods who don't even know they are there — like the one in San Bruno, Calif., where seven people were recently killed and a neighborhood destroyed.

The National Pipeline Mapping System, poor as it is, is available to the public on a county-by-county basis. It has geospatial data on hundreds of thousands of miles of gas and hazardous liquids pipelines in the U.S. Many key pipelines are missing from it, including collector lines and newer lines — and its accuracy may be only to the nearest 500 feet. But it does show pipeline proximity to densely populated areas, where the greatest threat to life exists. It does not include information on pipeline inspections — which would show government regulatory neglect and poor maintenance by companies.

That's just what was shown in a major investigative project, "Pipelines: The Invisible Danger," written by journalists Jeff Nesmith & Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and published by the Austin American-Statesman on July 22, 2001, just before 9/11. It followed a pipeline explosion in Carlsbad, NM, in August 19, 2000, that killed 12.
 
The story, as told by Nesmith and Haurwitz, was that aging, corroding, leaky, uninspected, and poorly maintained commercial pipelines presented a threat that was made worse by lax oversight from an underfunded, understaffed, and industry-friendly regulatory agency (PHMSA).
 
An Associated Press story by Sharon Theimer published today suggests the government and pipeline companies are colluding to keep pipeline emergency plans from the people who might be killed by explosions. The plans are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act because the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does not keep copies of them itself, but rather lets the companies keep paper copies of the plans. This prevents people in neighborhoods from knowing that their lives may be put at risk — or how to save themselves in the event of a rupture. For example, the plans might include methods by which residents could be warned of a hazardous leak or routes for evacuation.

An Associated Press story by Sharon Theimer published today suggests the government and pipeline companies are colluding to keep pipeline emergency plans from the people who might be killed by explosions. The plans are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act because the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does not keep copies of them itself, but rather lets the companies keep paper copies of the plans. This prevents people in neighborhoods from knowing that their lives may be put at risk — or how to save themselves in the event of a rupture.