DENVER — This summer, an Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying oil across Montana burst suddenly, soiling the swollen Yellowstone River with an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude just weeks after a company inspection and federal review had found nothing seriously wrong.
And in the Midwest, a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., once teeming with swimmers and boaters, remains closed nearly 14 months after an Enbridge Energy pipeline hemorrhaged 843,000 gallons of oil that will cost more than $500 million to clean up.
While investigators have yet to determine the cause of either accident, the spills have drawn attention to oversight of the 167,000-mile system of hazardous liquid pipelines crisscrossing the nation.
The little-known federal agency charged with monitoring the system and enforcing safety measures — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves, according to federal reports, an examination of agency data and interviews with safety experts.
They portray an agency that rarely levies fines and is not active enough in policing the aging labyrinth of pipelines, which has suffered thousands of significant hazardous liquid spills over the past two decades.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the pipeline agency, acknowledges weaknesses in the program and is asking Congress to pass legislation that would increase penalties for negligent operators and authorize the hiring of additional inspectors. That may be a tough sell in a Congress averse to new spending and stricter regulation.
“We need to know with great certainty that inspections and replacements have been done in a timely way that will prevent these kinds of spills from happening,” he said.