Emergency Preparedness and Response

PHMSA Improvements for Onshore Oil Pipeline Facility Response Plans

When an oil pipeline ruptures, a well-prescribed and documented series of actions must take place if the resulting spill is to be contained, managed, and remediated with the least possible damage to human health and the environment. When these actions do not occur in a timely and organized fashion, the results can be both catastrophic and costly.

For example, the massive oil spill in Michigan has resulted in cleanup efforts nearing the fourth year with ongoing costs exceeding $1 billion.  In addition, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)  also handed the company a record $3.7 million civil penalty. And that is not to mention the devastation wrought on the environment and the lives and livelihoods of thousands of affected people in the spill area.

In a recent Federal Register Notice (FR Volume 79, Number 18), PHMSA spelled out the many mistakes made during that event and provides several reminders and suggestions to help identify and rectify deficiencies in  FRPs required under 49 CFR 194.


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The first reminder is that FRPs must be updated:

  • Every 5 years from the date of last submission or last approval (according to its significant and substantial designation) and
  • Whenever new or different operating conditions would affect the implementation of the FRP.

All updating should be done using Appendix A Part 194—Guidelines for the Preparation of Response Plans and submitted, preferably electronically as a PDF, to PHMSA, via e-mail if the files are less than 5 MB, or on a disk or flash drive via courier. Hard copy submissions are also accepted.

The second reminder is that submitted FRPs that meet PHMSA requirements will be posted on PHMSA’s website for public use, although before posting certain personal and security-related information will be redacted, in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and other related laws.

PHMSA also recommends that owners and operators limit the use of “incorporate by reference” in FRPs, and instead, replace those statements with excerpts from the actual referenced documents or the documents as a whole. While this is not a mandate and incorporating by reference is permitted, however, PHMSA notes that the practice “may inhibit regulators’ and incident responders’ access to and understanding of an FRP during response to oil spill incidents,” when immediate access to such documents as operations, maintenance, and emergency manuals may be required.


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 In addition, the Notice also provides insight into five of the most common FRP mistakes resulting in rejection of the plans.

1) Missing, incorrect, or incomplete methodology and calculations used to determine a worst case discharge (WCD). Specifically, PHMSA cites the comparison of volumes of WCDs from the pipeline, breakout tanks, and maximum historical discharge, and the inclusion of an affirmation statement that any of these elements is not applicable, as necessary. 

2) Failure to identify incident response resources that are available to respond.

3) Failure to identify environmentally and economically sensitive areas applicable to the pipeline area of operations.

4) Failure to provide provisions that ensure responders are safe at a response site.

5) Failure to provide the name or title and 24-hour telephone number of an operator’s “Qualified Individual” and at least one alternate.

Again, PHMSA recommends oil pipeline owners and operators consult Appendix A of Part 194 and follow the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) regulations pertaining to FRPs to ensure plans meet all requirements and are adequate for worst-case oil discharges.