Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

NTSB and PHMSA Focus on Facility Response Plans for Pipelines

Posted by Allison Campbell on Mon, Jul 14, 2014 of the 2010 spill at Marshall, Michigan, the largest on-land spill in US history, underlines the reality that a Facility Response Plan (FRP) is more than a government-required document—an inadequate document or plan can lead to environmental and economic disaster. Owners and operators of onshore pipelines must review and update FRPs every five years from the date of last submission or last approval, and whenever new or different operating conditions arise that would affect the plan. (49 CFR 194.121 Response Plan Review and Update Procedures). PHMSA recently released two Advisory Bulletins reminding operators what it requires in an FRP and listing five of the most common reasons for it to reject an FRP.

The Spill at Marshall, Michigan

On July 25, 2010, a defective pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge leaked over 843,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, Talmudge Creek, and the surrounding wetlands of Marshall, Michigan. Families were evacuated, do-not-drink water advisories were issued, and 35 miles of the river were closed for clean-up until June 2012. In March 2013, EPA ordered Enbridge to dredge to remove contaminated sediment, and cleanup and remediation efforts continue. To date, costs to Enbridge have exceeded $1 billion.

The National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the incident and issued a report identifying several deficiencies in Enbridge’s Integrity Management plan that contributed to the occurrence and the severity of the spill.  The report also contained a number of recommendations to reduce the possibilities of similar occurrences, including recommendations that PHMSA issue advisory bulletins to inform pipeline operators and owners of the circumstances of the incident and remind them of the need to review and improve Facility Response Plans.

The Main Findings of the NTSB Report

The NTSB identified a number of shortcomings in Enbridge’s Integrity Management plan, focusing on assessment processes and training.

Assessment Processes

The IM plan lacked:

  • A method to properly assess the information gathered from inspections.

  • A formal process to reassess conditions in the face of any new relevant information regarding pipeline conditions.


The IM plan training requirements did not meet basic requirements for staff or community. Shortcomings included:

  • Inadequately trained staff at the control center led to a 17-hour delay in responding properly to the alarm set off by the pipeline rupture. Staff initially interpreted the alarm as being caused by an incompletely filled pipeline (column separation) and responded by increasing the flow in the pipeline.

  • Inadequately trained first responders focused their early efforts downstream of the actual area of the rupture and used oil-containing booms that were not appropriate to the river conditions.

  • Insufficient public education and awareness training caused a 14-hour gap between the time of the first notification to local emergency response agencies about an odor and action by the pipeline owner to investigate the problem.

PHMSA’s Recommendations to Pipeline Owners and Operators

Based on the NTSB report on the spill in Marshall, Michigan, PHMSA made a number of recommendations to pipeline owners and operators, including:

  • Evaluate their leak detection software during all conditions, including pipeline startup, shutdown, and column separation.

  • Assess their public awareness programs to enable local emergency response agencies to identify early indications of a pipeline rupture and respond in an acceptable timeframe.

  • Ensure that the pipeline operator uses the appropriate tools and metrics for various conditions, and integrates new relevant information into the assessments process, reviewing old assessments when new information emerges about conditions, materials, or metrics, or there are changes to software, acceptance criteria or classification of anomalies.

PHMSA Notes 5 Common Errors in a Facility Response Plan

PHMSA’s recent advisory bulletins remind on-shore pipeline owners and operators of some of the key points to consider when creating or reviewing an FRP. They also noted five common errors for which plans are rejected:

  1. Missing, incorrect or incomplete calculations and methods used to determine worst-case discharge.

  2. Failure to identify available response resources in the event of a spill.

  3. Failure to identify the environmentally and economically sensitive areas specific to the pipeline’s area of operation.

  4. Lack of equipment to ensure safety of responders at a response site.

  5. Missing the name or title and a 24-hour telephone number for an operator’s “Qualified Individual” and one alternative.

Complete details of the requirements are found in 49 CFR 194.121 and Appendix A of Part 194—“Guidelines for the Preparation of Response Plans.” Specific details for high-volume areas are found in Appendix B.

The strongest advice regarding Facility Response Plans was also the most straight-forward advice—use them. As the May 6, 2014 Advisory Bulletin noted: “Had existing regulations, guidance, advisories and recommendations regarding these programs been properly acted upon, the consequences of that incident could have been prevented, or at the very least, mitigated.”

STP has recently issued an update to Pipeline Safety Auditing: Federal Compliance Guide and also publishes the following related guides:


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1Bulletins referenced are: Advisory Bulletin ADB-2014-01, Conforming Facility Response Plans (FRPs) to Appendix A to Part 194—“Guidelines for the Preparation of Response Plans” and Identifying Deficiencies, [4532 Federal Register/Vol. 79, No. 18/January 18, 2014 /Notices]. Advisory Bulletin ADB-2014-02, Integrity Management Lessons Learned from the Marshall, Michigan, Release, [25991 Federal Register/Vol. 79, No. 87/May 6, 2014 /Notices].


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