COVID-19 causes halt on PHMSA compliance enforcement efforts

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued last week a Stay of Enforcement for its operator qualification, control room management, or employment drug testing requirements.

The organization issued the order to state pipeline safety program managers, pipeline operators, and operators of gas storage and liquefied natural gas facilities. The outbreak of the disease has put a squeeze on pipeline operations, much as it has impacted workforce capabilities throughout the United States, and the PHMSA is adapting accordingly.

“PHMSA understands that some pipeline operators are finding it extremely difficult to meet one or more of these regulatory requirements because of personnel and resource constraints due to the National Emergency and have sought temporary relief as they develop strategies and alternatives for maintaining normal operations and protecting the health and safety of their personnel and the public,” the PHMSA said in its notice on enforcement.

The PHMSA explicitly does not waive operators from safety responsibilities through these actions — trained, non-impaired workers should still be the ones performing operation and maintenance tasks, the administration said. It still encourages operators to document any issues as such and quickly bring them to regulators’ attention.

The PHMSA added that there could be other regulatory requirements that pose difficulties as the National Emergency stretches onward, and intends to exercise discretion in pursuit of overall enforcement going forward. Flexibility is going to be necessary, it recognizes, and as such, it also will not object to waivers, special permits, stays of enforcement or other similar measures issued by state authorities to pipeline operators for noncompliance.

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