ruptured pipeline
Reduced numbers of federal inspectors
means ruptured pipelines like this one could
become more common.
At a time when more crude oil is being moved through aging pipelines and in outmoded railroad tanker cars, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is chopping 40 people off its staff, which many people already view as too small to do its task effectively.

PHMSA is handling the cuts by means of buy-outs, typically used in the private sector to incentivize employees, especially higher-paid employees, to retire early, thus saving on payroll expenses whether or not those who are bought out are replaced.

Elizabeth Douglass at Inside Climate News reports:

... the job cuts come at a time when PHMSA is already under considerable duress. Politicians and the public have been pushing the agency to more rigorously regulate the nation's aging pipeline network as well as the many new pipelines tied to surging domestic oil and natural gas production. A spate of damaging pipeline spills and oil-by-rail accidents is adding to the workload, exposing PHMSA's shortcomings and intensifying scrutiny of the agency.

PHMSA, which is part of the Department of Transportation, regulates the 2.6 million miles of U.S. pipelines that carry hazardous liquids such as crude oil and fuels. [...]

"It seems like a lot of people … [and] an inopportune time," said [Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust and a member of PHMSA's technical committee for pipeline safety standards]. "They have all these Congressional mandates, they have all these requests from [the National Transportation Safety Board] to fix things, there's been a series of incidents that they're trying to investigate, and they're even saying out loud how they don't have enough inspectors and how they would like to do more."

Others have expressed similar concerns. With inspectors so hard to hire because people with the required skills are being grabbed up by the private sector—which pays better—it's mighty strange to see inspectors being laid off. Part of the reason is the federal budget sequester that has led to axing across a wide array of regulatory and other agencies. If everyone takes the available buyouts, the PHMSA's full-time staff will fall to 386. That's 112 jobs below its approved payroll for 2014. The agency is seeking enough budget increase in 2015 to boost the staff to 602. That seems extremely unlikely to be approved. Even if it were, getting up to full staff seems even less likely.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Apr 28, 2014 at 01:37 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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