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Federal safety agency struggling to meet goals for inspecting gas storage sites

Federal safety regulators may fall short of their goal of inspecting hundreds of natural gas storage sites, a target they set following a massive 2015 gas leak, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, appears to lack the resources necessary to conduct inspections at about 400 sites by early 2023, the GAO said in an Oct. 16 report. The audit also found risks to human health and the environment linked to the storage sites and potential leaks from them.

PHMSA set out to inspect the storage sites as part of its response to the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility leak. The nearly four-month leak outside Los Angeles released 5.4 billion cubic feet of gas, forced the relocation of 8,000 families and fueled claims of leak-related illness.

The timely inspection of the sites is seen as crucial because similarities between storage wells at Aliso Canyon and other sites across the nation raise concerns about future gas leaks, the GAO warned, citing a 2017 Harvard University study.

"In 2018, PHMSA collected data that showed approximately 10,000 of the 17,000 (about 59 percent) underground natural gas storage wells across the country have design characteristics similar to the well at Aliso Canyon," the GAO said. "According to an analysis by the Department of Energy ... more than 300 cities, towns, and other populated areas are located within about 3 miles of a natural gas storage site."

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One reason PHMSA may not complete the inspections on time is insufficient help from state regulatory partners. PHMSA estimated in 2017 that 25 states would work with the agency to inspect about 200 sites, leaving six PHMSA employees to inspect roughly another 200. But only 10 states have agreed to participate in the inspections to date, the GAO found.

The GAO estimates that the current lack of state support means PHMSA will be responsible for about 322 inspections, representing a 60% increase in its workload since the targets were set.

"Because of the increase in its inspection workload over its preliminary estimate, PHMSA does not have assurance that it has enough resources to meet its inspection goal," the GAO said. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which houses PHMSA, agreed with the report's recommendation, the GAO said.

PHMSA and state partners exceeded their inspections goal in 2018, but the GAO warns the target will become harder to meet because it roughly doubles in 2019.

PHMSA told the GAO that more states may participate. But some states said they sat out the inspections because PHMSA did not provide enough funding for the work or because they were waiting for state legislatures to appropriate funds, the GAO said. The GAO recommended PHMSA analyze why states are not participating in the inspections, as well as its workforce needs so it can better tailor its budget requests.

The audit also found fault with PHMSA's performance goals for its natural gas storage program. The GAO said those goals are not adequately designed to achieve outcomes in service of the program's overall strategic goal of improving safety at storage sites. The GAO said PHMSA should set outcome-oriented performance goals, such as tracking reductions to safety incidents.

The government watchdog prepared the report at the request of Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.