Pipeline Safety:

New Risk Assessment Program Could Help Evaluate Inspection Cycle

RCED-89-107: Published: Mar 7, 1989. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 1989.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO examined the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Office of Pipeline Safety's development of the inspection cycle for natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, focusing on whether the: (1) office based the pipeline inspection cycle on sound risk assessments; and (2) Pipeline Inspection Priority Program (PIPP) would identify pipelines with the greatest potential safety risks.

GAO found that: (1) in 1987, the office determined that it should inspect each pipeline inspection unit every 2.5 years; (2) although the office believed that the 2.5-year cycle was reasonable, it did not consider variations in relative safety conditions among individual units; (3) regional chiefs believed that the cycle was too ambitious because of the time required to perform other important compliance activities; and (4) the office expected its field inspectors to conduct 32 investigations per year at an average of 2.5 days per inspection, while field chiefs believed that inspectors needed between 2.5 and 7.5 days to complete an inspection. GAO also found that: (1) the office developed PIPP to identify the relative risk of pipeline companies and units on the basis of weighted safety factors; (2) the office could not ensure the reliability of program data, since it did not provide sufficient training on how to access the computer system or how to assign unit inspection priority codes; (3) pipeline inspectors had no consistent guidance on how to assign unit safety risk priority codes; and (4) the office did not plan to use program data to evaluate its inspection cycle or staffing level.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Additional guidance and training has been provided to field personnel on using risk analysis as a basis for inspection planning and scheduling. Phase I PIPP data provided by operators has improved to a level that makes it useful as a management tool. Phase II PIPP data provided by agency inspectors was completed in November 1990 and is now fully operational.

    Recommendation: To ensure that PIPP identifies and prioritizes pipeline inspections on the basis of a sound assessment of risk, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), to: (1) provide training to field staff on how to access and validate the pipeline priority program data; and (2) issue guidance to regions on how to characterize the pipeline units' safety risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: New inspection cycle guidelines have been developed as part of the new risk assessment program. Inspector staffing levels to carry out this program have been determined, and this information has been used in preparing staffing level requests in RSPA budget submissions.

    Recommendation: Once the pipeline priority program becomes operational, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, RSPA, to use the information on the number and regional location of high-risk pipelines to determine whether its pipeline inspection cycle and current inspector staffing level are appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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