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Audit says N.Y. pipeline oversight is lax


With the federal government relying on state regulators as "the first line of defense" in ensuring the safety of natural gas pipelines, New York's Department of Public Service must provide better oversight of the 91,181 miles of transmission infrastructure, an audit has determined.

The audit from the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that from 1995 through 2014, New York had 194 pipeline "incidents," resulting in 23 fatalities, 123 injuries and $77 million in property damage.

The audit concluded that the Department of Public Service, the staff arm of the Public Service Commission, relies on information it gets from pipeline operators when it makes field visits, but does not verify that information.

The state regulators have also not set up a process for identifying instances where operators fail to notify them of incidents as required, the audit said.

In a third criticism, the auditors wrote that that Department of Public Service "does not perform analyses of all available data to better identify potential high-risk areas."

The report called attention to the March 2014 gas explosion that rocked the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City, killing eight people and injuring 70 more. The audit said federal investigators subsequently determined that the state DPS "had not adequately utilities to ensure operators who were fusing pipelines were properly qualified."

Since the Comptroller's audit, the state regulators have revised its plan to ensure its evaluations of pipeline operators at intervals that do not exceed five years and will include reviews of training, testing and on-site field evaluations, the report said.

While the new audit pointed out that the regulators have conducted all inspections required and followed up on violations, it suggested that it could do a better job incorporating data from outside sources "to better predict high risk areas in an effort to prevent incidents."

A Public Service Commission spokesman, James Denn, said the audit confirms the department has been fulfilling all requirements.

"We are proud of the fact that New York’s gas safety regulations are among the most stringent and best in the nation," Denn said. "With monitoring efforts even more stringent than federal requirements, we have a ‘best-in-class’ safety program in this critical industry."

Denn added: "This months-long state audit found us fundamentally in compliance with our oversight of the utilities’ maintaining public safety."

Walter Hang, an anti-fracking activist and founder of the Ithaca research firm Toxics Targeting, said the comptroller's report should be seen as further evidence that state agencies are not prepared to allow further expansion of gas infrastructure, such as the proposed Constitution Pipeline and Northeast Energy Direct pipeline projects.

"This echoes what thousands of citizens are telling Gov. Andrew Cuomo: to deny the Section 401 Water Quality Certificate" now being sought by the Constitution Pipeline planners, Hang said.

Both the Constitution Pipeline and NED would cut through Delaware and Schoharie counties, running just east of Interstate 88.

An advocate for the gas drilling industry, Marcellus Drilling News, slammed the comptroller's audit, contending the report was biased and lacked context by failing to delve into the number of railroad incidents and bridge accidents that have taken place during the time frame examined for pipeline incidents.

"When you stack up pipelines against any other form of transportation, pipelines are the safest mode of transport — by far," Marcellus Drilling News said on its web site.