PHMSA issued an updated advisory regarding the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by severe flooding.  Presumably prompted by the January 2015 release to the Yellowstone river in Glendive, Montana, associated with an area of exposed pipeline on the river bottom, the Agency reiterated the nine (9) actions it has set forth in prior advisories to prevent and mitigate damage to pipelines impacted by flooding.  See e.g., Advisory, 76 FR 44985 (Jul. 27, 2011); see also prior pipelinelaw alert regarding the same.  Notably, PHMSA adds the following five (5) additional actions to its previous list: 

  • Evaluate a river’s potential for scour or channel migration at each river crossing using river flow experts.
  • Evaluate each crossing to determine the pipeline installation method and whether it is sufficient to withstand risks posed by anticipated flooding conditions, river scour or river channel migration.
  • Determine maximum flow or flooding conditions where pipeline integrity is a risk in the event of flooding (e.g., where scour can occur) and maintain contingency plans to shut down and isolate those pipelines during such conditions.
  • Maintain open communications with local and state officials to address concerns regarding observed pipeline exposures, localized flooding, ice dams, debris dams, and extensive bank erosion that may affect integrity at river crossings.
  • When safe river access is first available following a flood, determine if flooding has exposed or undermined pipelines because of new channel profiles (best performed with a depth of cover survey).

In issuing the advisory, PHMSA reminded operators of regulatory obligations that may require them to respond and address impacts from flooding conditions at river crossings: (1) pipeline surveillance (Part 192.613(a)); (2) general obligations to correct conditions that may adversely impact safe operation of the pipeline, noting that flooding, river scour and channel migration are such conditions (Parts 192.613(b) and 195.401(b)(1)-(2)); (3) requirement for certain onshore oil pipelines to maintain a facility response plan, including resources for responding to a worst case discharged (Parts 194.107(a), 194.115); and (4) requirement for certain pipelines located in “high consequence areas” to take measures to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a pipeline failure (Parts 192.935, 194.107(a), and 195.452(i)).

As additional background, in 2011, Congress required PHMSA to prepare and submit a report regarding hazardous liquid incidents at water crossings to determine if depth of cover was a factor in the releases.  PHMSA submitted that report to Congress in December 2012, which cited depletion of cover and the dynamic and unique nature of rivers and flood plains as factors in 16 of 20 releases at pipeline water crossings.  Further, in November of 2013, the Agency informed Congress that its existing legislative authority was adequate to address the risks of hazardous liquid pipeline failures at major river crossings and that it would continue to look for ways to enhance its regulations moving forward.  To date, however, PHMSA has not promulgated any new regulations regarding depth of cover or monitoring of pipeline river crossings and this Advisory may be another example of PHMSA articulating new regulatory requirements through guidance without allowing industry and the public for notice and opportunity for comment.