The emergency plans for companies operating natural gas pipelines like the one that exploded in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people and destroying a neighborhood, are effectively off-limits to the public and industry watchdogs because the federal pipeline safety agency doesn't keep copies in its offices.
The policy of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration means companies can keep their emergency plans hidden from people who might live near natural gas transmission lines. Because the government doesn't have copies of the plans, the public can't use the nation's open records law to request them.
State, city and county officials in California said they do not have copies of the San Bruno pipeline disaster plan, either.
The federal pipeline safety agency doesn't ask natural gas pipeline operators for the plans because it isn't required to do so, agency spokesman Julia P. Valentine said.
"Congress requires PHMSA to inspect the emergency response plans," Valentine said. "There is no regulation requiring operators to submit these plans to PHMSA and for the agency to retain them."
Rather than obtaining copies of the plans, inspectors view them while visiting natural gas operators' facilities and leave them there.
The Associated Press discovered that federal regulators didn't have natural gas pipelines' emergency plans when it filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of every emergency plan for every natural gas and oil transmission pipeline in the U.S.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which operated the San Bruno natural gas pipeline that exploded last month, declined to provide a copy of its emergency plan to the AP, saying it contained confidential customer and employee information.
The federal pipeline safety administration has long been criticized for a cozy relationship with the companies it is supposed to regulate. Its on-site-only review of natural gas pipeline emergency plans puts it at odds with other federal agencies such as the Interior Department, which publicly disclosed copies of BP's plan for the Gulf of Mexico and the Deepwater Horizon rig after the Gulf oil spill in April. Those plans, approved by the government last year before BP drilled its doomed well, contained errors and showed that BP was unprepared to handle quickly a spill of the Gulf disaster's magnitude.
PHMSA's policy for natural gas pipelines is also at odds with its handling of spill plans prepared by oil pipeline operators. Federal law requires PHMSA to periodically obtain and keep copies of those plans. Agency Administrator Cynthia Quarterman told Congress last month that her agency would make the oil spill response plans public.
The emergency plan for PG&E in California will probably draw scrutiny as investigators examine the utility's response time in the San Bruno explosion, including how long it took to stop the flow of natural gas.
Officials in San Bruno and San Mateo County said PG&E didn't share its emergency plan for the pipeline with their emergency response agencies prior to the disaster. They said it is information they'd like to have.
"The city of San Bruno and I think many other cities are more acutely interested now in what are the locations and configurations of the lines and how are they operated and how can they be quickly shut off," San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said. Jackson said PG&E cooperated immediately with emergency crews.
The environmental health director for San Mateo County, Dean Peterson, said the county's hazardous materials team examined surrounding facilities such as gas stations and radio towers after the blast.
"Any information we have of hazards in our county would be beneficial," Peterson said.
PG&E spokeswoman Katie Romans said the California Public Utilities Commission asked to see the plan early this year as part of an annual audit, but the utility didn't give the plan to local emergency crews.
It has shared elements of it with local public safety agencies during joint exercises; the most recent joint exercise with San Bruno area emergency responders was in 2006, Romans said.
"We did not widely distribute the plan because it contains confidential operating information," Romans said.
California Public Utilities Commission spokeswoman Susan Carothers said her agency reviews the plans while auditing utilities but doesn't have copies. That effectively puts it out of reach of citizens who otherwise could request copies under California's open records law.
A new U.S. Senate pipeline safety bill would require PHMSA to collect emergency response plans from natural gas and other hazardous liquid pipeline operators and, after removing sensitive details such as proprietary or security information, post them online. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
A pipeline safety advocate said federal regulators should get copies of the natural gas pipeline disaster plans so they can review them in detail, and the public should get to see them.
"Most of these plans are pretty big documents. I don't think an inspector who's going to be visiting for a day or two can get up to speed on a significant document like that and then ask specific questions about what they're doing," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Wash. "They're being developed by industry and get a nod from PHMSA and the public never gets to see or comment on them."
Weimer and Christina Sames, vice president of operations and engineering for the American Gas Association, an industry lobbying group, said they were unaware of any states that collect natural gas pipeline operators' emergency response plans and make them public.
Sames said it makes sense for federal officials to collect oil spill plans because, unlike natural gas pipeline leaks, oil spills can spread for miles and cause a lot of environmental damage.
Operators share natural gas pipeline emergency plans with PHMSA, states and local emergency responders, Sames said. By reviewing plans while visiting facilities, state and federal inspectors can have questions answered instantly, she said, adding that it was unclear how the public would benefit from seeing the plans. Utilities are supposed to let people know if they live near a pipeline, and that's the most important information for homeowners to have, Sames said.
"I think the critical thing here is that those emergency response plans are very easily accessible to those people who really need them," Sames said.
Timothy Butters, chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Hazardous Materials Committee, said emergency responders feel utilities' top priority should be sharing the plans with them. Operators do a good job in general, but it isn't happening everywhere, said Butters, an assistant chief in the Fairfax, Va., city fire department.
Butters said there would be no point to PHMSA collecting the plans unless it then evaluated them.
"That's one of the biggest concerns at the local levels, is sometimes these emergency plans that are produced by operators are often just sort of a paper tiger, and they sit on a shelf and they're not really shared effectively with the emergency response community and they're not maintained," Butters said.
Associated Press writer Jason Dearen in San Francisco contributed to this report.
© 2010 The Associated Press.