Friday, November 15, 2013

Transparency lacking in federal pipeline safety program

Broken Enbridge, Inc. pipeline polluted Michigan river.
UPDATE: Big pipeline explosion Thu in Texas

WASHINGTON — As more oil and gas pipelines splay across the U.S., less information is publicly available about the safety of these high-risk facilities and what is being done to reduce those risks, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group today called upon the federal pipeline safety agency to start putting safety-related information, such as response plans, incident reports and pipeline inspection data, on its website.

“Basic information about the reliability of our immense pipeline network should be readily available for all to see,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, whose organization has had to sue the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to force it to disclose facility response plans for systems it regulates. “It is ridiculous that it takes a federal case to uncover crucial safety information.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Government Accountability Office and Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General have all taken PHMSA to task for keeping state and local first responders in the dark on pipeline failures. PHMSA has historically been hard to pry information out of.

In an October 30, 2013 letter, PHMSA Associate Administer Jeffrey Wiese complained that data PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act did not convey the entire picture. PEER responded by urging PHMSA to stop making selective information releases and start displaying, among other things:

-- All facility response plans to help state and local agencies and adjacent communities better prepare for future incidents (PHMSA is releasing this information to PEER from a lawsuit filed last April but is producing slowly at a rate that would extend beyond 2014);
-- All reports of investigation and hazardous material spills immediately after they are reported; and
-- A current database of inspections of pipeline units in order to monitor at-risk pipelines.

The frustration with PHMSA’s lack of transparency extends to safety measures the agency is supposed to be implementing. In an October 30, 2013 letter, U.S. Representative John Dingell (D-MI) demanded that PHMSA account for an array of safety steps it was mandated to adopt by the Pipeline Safety Act of 2011. Nor has PHMSA put in place key NTSB safety recommendations following the natural gas line explosion in San Bruno, California which killed eight and totally leveled a neighborhood, or the massive Enbridge breach which gushed a million gallons of tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River – both back in 2010.

By contrast, Mr. Wiese has touted the creation of a PHMSA YouTube channel to sway industry into making voluntary safety improvements. “We’ll be trying to socialize these concepts,” he stated after downplaying the effectiveness of regulation or enforcement during a July 24th conference.

“To protect our expanding 2.6 million-mile network of oil, natural gas and propane pipelines, we will need to see more than YouTube videos,” Douglass added, calling PHMSA among the most critical agencies you have never heard of. “If PHMSA wants to be better understood, it must begin to inform rather than stonewall the public.”

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

AZLeg must be careful on civil rights if texting bill pushed

 Joe Arpiao could use unneeded new law to harass more people.
STATE CAPITOL, PHOENIX -- Let me be clear up front, I believe texting while driving is stupid and dangerous. I also support law enforcement. My record is clear on that.

Let me also be clear I believe there are good intentions behind efforts to make a new law in Arizona outlawing texting while driving. I listened to these good intentions as a state lawmaker from 2009-12 and I respect them, but we all know good intentions can have unintended bad consequences.

Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, told the Cronkite News the state’s law against reckless driving should already cover texting while driving. “Texting while driving is something that is ridiculous and totally unacceptable, but the question I always ask is the same: How do you enforce it?” Gutier said. I agree.

In addition to being hard to enforce, there are other concerns lawmakers should consider. In a state with a long history of racial profiling by some cops, we should be very careful to not create a new vague reason for police to stop you. Although it is not clear that police in Arizona are even asking for a new law against texting.

It's difficult to understand how an officer would know the difference between you texting or dialing a phone number, turning off your ringer, deleting a voicemail, or other non-texting key punches of your phone, especially with the fast and limited view offered in most traffic situations. Anyone could be considered a violator it seems for simply for holding a phone in their hand and pushing a key.

This unavoidable phone use vagueness could lead to texting while driving claim abuses by some cops, for example Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies, who may want to pull someone over because they 'look suspicious', which we know too often means the driver is poor, black, latino or a woman. Most cops seem good, but some rogue cops would have a new open door to stop you to investigate alleged texting, then also ask to search your car or otherwise harass the driver or passengers without a solid reason to stop you in the first place. In a free country police should always have to have a strong and clear reason to stop you.

An unneeded new law on texting could also lead to difficult cases and expensive court costs for the state and citizens charged. It would seem very hard for the government to meet its burden of proving someone was actually texting while holding their phone. If you say you were calling your mom, would police then confiscate and search your phone to determine if you were texting? If so that clearly opens up a lot of significant constitutional and privacy concerns.

Highway Safety Director Gutier also said education is the best way to stop texting while driving. I agree. I urge my former colleagues in the legislature, new freshmen and Gov. Jan Brewer to be very careful not to let good intentions lead to bad consequences for our civil rights.

- 1st published 1.15.13