LINCOLN — Plan for a pipeline disaster, even though it probably won't happen.
Carl Weimer, director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, will deliver that message today and Friday in Nebraska when he meets with local elected officials and law enforcement officers about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“A lot of our focus is talking about what state and local governments can do to add another layer of safety,” said Weimer, who runs the nation's only nonprofit organization devoted to pipeline safety, in Bellingham, Wash.
Though the federal government regulates and enforces pipeline safety, states have the authority to develop their own plans to respond to pipeline emergencies. However, most states, including Nebraska, don't have specific plans in place, Weimer said.
But that doesn't mean that emergency responders are unprepared to deal with pipeline ruptures, said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Local response agencies provide general hazardous materials training for their members. In addition, local departments have the authority to call one of the 10 hazardous materials teams stationed across Nebraska. The teams have specialized equipment and training to deal with hazardous spills.
“If they think the situation exceeds their ability to respond, they can request assistance from the state,” Berndt said Wednesday.
In addition, both state and federal laws require the companies that own pipelines to file emergency response plans, said Shawn Howard, spokesman for TransCanada Corp., the company that has proposed building the Keystone XL to transport tar-sands crude oil from western Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Those plans rely on the company to respond to an incident. Responsibility for cleanup falls on the company as well, Howard said.
Since 2010, TransCanada has operated the original Keystone pipeline in Nebraska. It already maintains response equipment in the state and can send additional employees and contractors in to help with cleanup, Howard said.
“It's our people and our experts putting on the gloves and the boots, going in there and handling the product, because we're the ones trained to do it,” he said.
Pipeline critics have argued that TransCanada may not be able to quickly get to the scene of an accident, considering that the pipeline would cross about 275 miles in the state, much of it in rural areas.
The company has not yet filed an emergency response plan for the Keystone XL, because the project is still awaiting U.S. State Department approval, Howard said. Such a determination, required because the pipeline would cross an international border, isn't expected sooner than late this year.
Weimer will also appear at events sponsored by Bold Nebraska, which opposes the pipeline. But he stressed that his group is independent and does not take a position for or against projects. The trust's mission is to advocate for policies, regulations and industry practices that make pipelines safer.
He will appear on a panel with Paul Blackburn, a Minneapolis attorney who consults on pipelines and other national energy projects, and Brian Jorde, an Omaha attorney who represents landowners suing the state over its approval of the Keystone XL route.
The first discussion will take place at the Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island, where Bold Nebraska has invited the State Patrol, county attorneys and sheriffs along the proposed pipeline route. Patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins confirmed Wednesday that the agency will participate in what she called a “training opportunity” related to public safety.
Thursday's meeting is in response to a similar gathering of law enforcement officials and TransCanada last April. That discussion focused on how to respond if pipeline protesters engage in illegal activity.
Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, said her organization advocates only peaceful civil disobedience. She sees the discussion as a chance to open up a line of communication with law enforcement.
Friday's meeting will run from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the City Auditorium in York. The meeting is open to the public, and Bold Nebraska has invited elected officials and emergency managers along the proposed route.
Among the topics on Friday's agenda are pipeline-related zoning and land-use regulations that local governments can adopt.