Hurricane season is upon us, with Hurricane Florence making its way towards landfall in the Carolinas, currently expected to reach the coast by early Friday morning, September 14, 2018. Tropical storm force winds and heavy rain will reach the coastal areas even before that, and the storm is forecast to bring high winds, torrential rain, power outages and flooding over a multi-state area in the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions for several days. Many of these areas have experienced unseasonable amounts of rain this year, and that has already contributed to several pipeline incidents caused by earth movement. As pipeline operators prepare for potential impacts of this “monster storm,” operators should look to their own emergency response preparedness plans, known or suspected risks to their systems, as well as to PHMSA’s prior Advisories that provide guidance to the industry under these circumstances.
States of emergency have been declared for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, with mass evacuations ordered on the coast. The wide swath and strength of the storm, however, will be of most concern as the storm comes inland and drops very large amounts of rain over the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, which encompass considerable pipeline mileage. In anticipation of the impacts, PHMSA has already announced that it is “prepared to provide any necessary regulatory relief from the Hazardous Material regulations and waive certain pipeline Operator Qualifications/and pre-employment requirements in support of hurricane response and/or recovery.” And it is likely that the Agency will issue or reissue a version of its prior Advisories regarding potential impacts of hurricanes to oil and gas pipelines, as it did in the aftermaths of Harvey and Irma in 2017.
In advance of the storm’s arrival, PHMSA’s prior Advisories provide some interim guidance to pipeline operators. Past Advisories have addressed the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by hurricanes, warning of adverse effects on operations such as increased risks of earth movement (including landslides), exposed pipe, loss of electricity and access, disruption in service, etc. The Advisories remind operators that any of these developments may trigger obligations to take appropriate corrective measures, such as increased surveillance or repairs (49 C.F.R. Parts 192.613, 195.401(b)) and underwater inspections (49 C.F.R. Parts 192.613, 195.413). Further, while the most recently issued Advisories in 2017 largely focused on areas in the Gulf Coast, they also included guidance more generally applicable to pipelines on the East Coast, by encouraging pipeline operators to:
- Bring offshore and inland transmission facilities back online after a disruption, and check for structural damage to piping, valves, emergency shutdown systems, risers, and supporting systems.
- Aerial inspections of pipeline routes should also be conducted to check for leaks in transmission systems.
- Take action to minimize and mitigate damages caused by flooding to gas distribution systems, including the prevention of overpressure of low and high-pressure distribution systems.
Although Agency guidance such as this is not legally binding or enforceable, the Agency refers to the ‘general duty’ provisions in its regulations (such as 192.613 and 195.401). PHMSA could rely on those general provisions in future enforcement actions if operators fail to take the actions recommended in the Advisory. There have been instances in the past where the Agency has cited its general duty regulations as the basis for enforcement where operators failed to discover or correct conditions caused by natural forces that could potentially affect safe operations on their pipeline systems. See, e.g., In re Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America, CPF No. 3-2005-1011 (failure to address exposed pipeline at a river crossing); In re ANR Pipeline Company, CPF No. 2-2008-1005W (failure to address undercutting of concrete matting over a pipeline).
As pipeline operators prepare for the hurricane season, and Hurricane Florence in particular, operators should look to their emergency response plans, relevant system characteristics, and consider the recommendations in prior PHMSA Advisories.