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Former Pipeline Safety Agency Head Defends Testing of Mayflower's Pegasus Pipeline

Brigham McCown at Clinton School of Public Service
Jacob Kauffman

After the oil spill in Mayflower, many local officials have expressed skepticism about pipeline testing and oversight. Wednesday a former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration spoke about the issue at the Clinton School of Public Service and took pointed questions about the matter. KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman reports. 

Safety inspections done in 2010 and 2013, before the rupture of the Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, are of interest to many concerned about the oil spill. The results of these tests could show negligence, reveal they are not performed frequently enough, or could reveal current inspections are not able to detect structural flaws leading to failures.

The former administrator of the agency regulating pipelines, Brigham McCown, told the crowd that inspections are working.

“By utilizing data to drive the decision making process the agency reduces risk and mitigates consequences. The product of much debate and at times animated conversation, that principle is sound,” said McCown.

But, that comment drew a question from Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola. He prefaced it by noting previous inspections of the Pegasus pipeline “failed to detect” flaws.

“Are you satisfied that the existing scientific techniques of trying to inspect and determine whether pipes are properly maintained is adequate enough? And secondly, now that we know that we’ve got a lot of this pipe, that comes through our particular watershed, was done at the same time between 1947, ’48, ’49, how do we determine whether a similar situation exists?” said Stodola.

McCown’s response suggested the inability to detect flaws in the Pegasus pipeline may be a result of collecting too much data.

“As we have made more and more of the tests mandatory it’s taking longer and longer to get them analyzed. Because it does take six to nine months to get the data back and the more sensors we put on one of these internal tools, the more data it gathers, the longer it takes to analyze. We have to do better. The concern of course is that the P.I.G. data runs didn’t identify any potential leaks. I’m still waiting for the investigation to come out because I think the jury’s still out on that point,” said McCown.

But despite the defense of limitations of inadequate capacity to analyze data, it had been far longer than 9 months since a 2010 test. McCown’s comment that “the jury’s still out” implies the possibility that testing did detect flaws, which might lead some to wonder why nothing was done.

Mayor Stodola said after the lecture that McCown’s comments left him with this impression…

“There’s not a reassurance at this point in time that our scientific procedures are adequate to determine whether or not similar pipe that was installed at that time could suffer the same kind of failure in the future.”

But McCown insisted he believes the testing methods are sound and pointed to the possibility of other factors as a possible cause.

“External factors can significantly affect the pipeline. I know it’s painstaking and takes a while but we’ve got to wait for PHMSA to come out with their report,” said McCown.

It’s still unclear if integrity tests failed to detect any problems. But there have been no indications they did. Whether the Pegasus pipeline is restarted will likely hinge on that issue.

Jacob Kauffman, KUAR NEWS

Further Notes:

  • Throughout the lecture McCown advocated for the Keystone XL pipeline , calling it a “no brainer.” He said pipelines are the safest and most efficient means of transporting energy. They have significantly less chance of spilling, but also carry significantly less risk, in the form of oil. He said studies from the Department of Energy show infrastructure investments for fossil fuels are necessary because they predict renewable energy will only account for 10% of the energy output by 2040.
  • McCown largely dismissed many environmental activists saying they are “artful in sowing indecision, uncertainty, and hysteria.” Instead he placed credibility with the experts at PHMSA, saying they were firmly rooted in science – implying activists are not.
  • In addition to serving with PHMSAMcCow has served, and is currently employed by a lobbying firm dealing with energy transportation.
  • McCown claimed oil present in Mayflower was not diluted and that there was no detection of harmful chemicals. April Long, a Conway resident, rebutted his claims saying the oil was diluted with chemicals and that initially harmful levels were detected, and that independent testing could verify that. McCown walked back his claim about the presence of chemicals to dilute the oil but maintained the chemicals weren't what people were thinking about.
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