2 Tips to Ready Your Hazmat Team for a Big Pipeline Leak

If you thought the number of significant pipeline incidents over the past 20 years in the United States was trending downward, you’d be mistaken.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the number of significant incidents in 2001 was 233. That was the lowest number for all 20 years, with 2005 having the highest at 336. To put this in perspective, 2019 had 317 such incidents and 2020 had 284.

In fact, the most recent three-year average (2018-2020) of 297 incidents is not significantly different from the five-year average of 301, or the 10-year average of 298 or the 20-year average of 288. You could argue the problem is getting worse, if ever so slightly.

PHMSA defines a significant event as meeting four criteria.

  • Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization
  • $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars
  • Highly volatile liquid releases of five barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more
  • Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion

One of those incidents that spiked the numbers in 2020 took the lives of five workers in an August pipeline explosion in the Corpus Christi inner harbor.

Also Read: Two Tips for Coping with Diesel Fuel in Waterways

And one of the bigger headlines this year came when a Houston company and its two subsidiaries were indicted for an October underwater pipeline spill that dumped upwards of 25,000 gallons of crude onto Southern California waters and beaches. In addition to legal action, that spill has kicked off a call for completely phasing out fossil fuel production and use in the state. In the more near-term, officials are looking for how they can improve prevention, detection and response to head off this type of incident.

Meanwhile, PHMSA allocated $98 million in grants for pipeline and hazmat safety. More information on those grant allocations can be found here.

A significant incident that would show up on PHMSA’s data charts will quickly overwhelm a local hazmat team. Expect and welcome state and federal resources. Likewise, the pipeline company may become legal adversaries at some point, but during the initial stages of the spill, everyone needs to work together. Here are two tips to an effective pipeline leak response.


Know where the hazards are and revisit them regularly. These pipelines may be above ground, underground or underwater. Tabletop how your team will approach containment in the initial stages of a spill at the most worrying locations. Walk those sites and keep updated photo images on file — here’s another area where drone footage can help with pre-incident planning.


Know your capabilities. Map out what can realistically be expected in terms of available equipment and manpower when the call first comes in. If a pipeline box card system isn’t in place, consider creating one. Part of the legal case in the California leak centers on the delayed initial response to the leak and the damage that inaction caused the environment. So far, that criticism is reserved for the pipeline company. But given past cases of fire departments being sued for delayed response, hazmat teams need to have their incident action plans in order well before the alarm goes off.

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