Hero 2020 Carl Weimer: The Right Man at the Right Time in the Right Place

Ellie Goldberg
Feb 24 · 11 min read
Lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion

The Healthy Kids Hero Award

Every year, to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, I salute someone who demonstrates an extraordinary sense of responsibility and commitment to the safety of children and their communities.

The Healthy Kids Hero Award is an annual opportunity to remember the 1937 TX tragedy and to inspire others to take leadership for public safety, especially where gas pipelines, compressor stations, and other hazardous fossil fuel projects contaminate air and drinking water and put schools, families, and whole communities at risk for deadly explosions and fires. (Heroes 2004–2019)

Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust (PST), is the 2020 Hero.

Over his long career Weimer has earned multiple awards from colleagues, community leaders, government officials, and other admirers including the 2015 White House for being the most effective advocate for improving the safety of nation’s vast network of gas and oil pipelines.

Courage, Credibility, Community

As important as all his accolades are, Weimer deserves the highest recognition and gratitude of the public and local governments for legitimizing the role of communities in the regulatory process. And, in his role as public interest watchdog, he achieves a high level of trust and credibility as he continuously champions a high standard for transparency in the pipeline industry and the regulatory agencies.

One reason for Weimer’s effectiveness is his remarkable ability to humanize the deadly consequences of the pipeline industry’s ugly history , especially its repeated incidents of criminal negligence and poor management. He firmly believes that citizens should be able to trust that their government is pro-actively working to prevent pipeline hazards.

The Pipeline Safety Trust’s Origin Story

PST’s compelling origin story is always at the forefront of Weimer’s work, in his welcoming speeches at the annual PST conferences, in testimonies to state and federal government agencies, committees and subcommittees, and when he speaks to pipeline industry representatives in public relations, sustainability, government affairs and public engagement.

He also has the courage to tell the stories that prove how the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) fails the American people because of inadequate regulations, lack of oversight, weak enforcement and rare accountability for the death and devastation to people, their communities, the environment and wildlife. He speaks out when the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has failed to serve the public interest.

Did you know that a natural gas pipeline is allowed to leak up to 3 million cubic feet of gas before it needs to be reported by the company as an incident? How much gas is 3 million cubic feet? According to the American Gas Association that is nearly 47 years worth of gas for the average home in the United States.

The Right Man at the Right Time in the Right Place

Carl Weimer was a long time advocate for pollution prevention, clean water, and community health and safety when on June 10, 1999 Bellingham suffered the deadly gasoline spill in Whatcom Park and the fiery explosion as the gasoline traveled down Whatcom Creek. It left three young boys dead, wiped out every living thing in a beautiful salmon stream, and caused millions of dollars of economic disruption.

June 10, 1999 Bellingham, Washington

On that day Weimer was just a few feet from Whatcom Creek. He was director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a regional environmental group that also ran a store selling reclaimed building materials. Following the Whatcom Park explosion, he became the leader of Safe Bellingham and eventually the executive director of the new national independent watchdog organization, Pipeline Safety Trust.

While prosecuting that Bellingham incident the U.S. Justice Department was so aghast at the way the pipeline company had operated and maintained their pipeline, and equally aghast at the lack of oversight from federal regulators, that they asked the federal courts to set aside money from the settlement of that case to create the Pipeline Safety Trust as an independent national watchdog organization over both the industry and the regulators.

American History TV, CSPAN “Bellingham” (Video 9 min)

Disaster Bellingham, 2009 (Video 36 min) created by the City of Bellingham to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1999 pipeline explosion it documents the events leading up to that tragedy and its aftermath.

A Vision for Our Communities

Strategic Plan. Today, as Weimer is preparing to step down from his leadership role, PST’s strategic plan explicitly expresses Weimer’s values and his organization’s vision for a better future that includes taking advantage of the opportunity to connect pipeline safety with alternative energy and climate change.

We see a world in which there are zero pipeline incidents and:
* Communities where residents feel safe from the hazards of energy infrastructure,
* Communities where residents trust their government to protect them from hazards,
* Government authorities that are proactive and innovative in their approaches to accident prevention,
* Energy production, distribution and consumption that promotes sustainable development,
* Energy and utility industries that partner with communities to promote safety and environmental protection,
* Communities that are empowered with information and technical expertise, and
* Communities where residents have a meaningful voice in pipeline decision-making.

Strengthening Public Engagement: Transparency

Before the founding of the Pipeline Safety Trust, you couldn’t find any pipeline information on the website of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). They didn’t have maps nor incident or enforcement data. No one knew who regulated pipelines.

There was no requirement to routinely inspect pipelines once they were in the ground. None of the regulations paid attention to leaks (and old pipelines leak a lot.) Pipeline companies were unprepared to respond to or manage disasters. No regulations required remote control valves to shut down the pipelines. Worker qualification standards, training and certification were left up to the pipeline companies. Information provided by operators as well as regulators was frustratingly difficult for the public to understand.

Weimer knew that the public was at a tremendous disadvantage because there are so many challenges dealing with different agencies responsible for different regulations. There is a disconnect between pipeline siting and pipeline safety. For example the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, (FERC) regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, gas, and oil. FERC doesn’t consider pipeline safety. They leave that up to PHMSA. And PHMSA’s safety regulations only apply after the pipeline construction begins. They don’t talk to each other enough.

Filling the Information Gap

Determined to correct these enormous information gaps and deficits, The Pipeline Safety Trust website offers technical references, national and state legal resources and links to maps, studies, special reports, policies, recommendations, best practices, standards, programs, advocacy partners and more that are especially empowering to citizens and local governments. One example is the Pipeline Safety Trust’s Local Government Guide to Pipelines.

Transparency of Pipeline Information

Another example is the Trust’s annual State Pipeline Safety Website Transparency Review of each state’s pipeline safety website, as well as PHMSA, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, to determine the amount of publicly available information. In 2017 PST also offered a free website audit, including detailed recommendations for improvements, to any state that wanted to participate. (PST Review criteria)

Strengthening Public Engagement: Training

Weimer emphasizes the importance of showing up to defend the public interest and how public input can change the process, but “you need to know what you are talking about.’

To assist public interest organizations and community advocates in countering the enormous power imbalance of the pipeline industry, PST received a PHMSA grant in 2017 and in 2018 to send twenty to thirty people from local and tribal governments and non-profit organizations to an in-depth 3-day training so they could develop programs and effectively engage in regulatory processes.

The goal was to give attendees an understanding of pipelines, pipeline regulations and the daily operations and potential risks from pipelines.

Attendees learned how pipelines are constructed, operated, maintained, inspected and regulated. They reviewed the different types of pipelines, the major failure causes and what is done to try to prevent those failures. They learned how to understand the confusing public information from industry and regulators.

Strengthening Public Engagement: Annual Conferences

Rebecca Craven has worked with Weimer as the PST Program Director and before then, as the Whatcom County Council’s Policy Analyst when Weimer was chairman on the County Council. Craven writes,

“The Trust’s annual conference is often a bit of a revelation to folks attending for the first time. The conference brings together everyone — industry leaders, regulators, local government, environmental groups, concerned residents who are facing the threat of a new pipeline or perhaps have just survived a pipeline incident — all in the same room, hearing the same speakers, eating the same lunches, and it forces people to talk and listen to each other in ways that don’t otherwise happen in the typical regulator’s office or corporate executive suite.

Carl has a unique set of political skills that allows him to say a lot of things that the industry and regulators may not really want to hear, but to do it with some self-deprecating humor and a lot of questions, that usually doesn’t offend them much.”

Speaker videos and presentation downloads of every Pipeline Safety Trust Conference (2006–2019) are all online.

The Everlasting Aftermath

At the PST Annual Conferences Weimer always reminds people to never forget the people who have died when safety is not a priority.

The conference typically provides a platform for mayors, such as Dan Rivera, the Mayor of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who described how the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts “had learned about pipelines the hard way” and even more, he vividly detailed the personal and community cost of the “everlasting” aftermath.

The Merrimack Valley Gas Emergency: Video, Slide Presentation (pdf)

Over the years Weimer says that PST has discussed moving the office out of Bellingham but has decided it was important to stay to provide a first hand connection to the Bellingham story. It is often one of the first places that new PHMSA administrators visit. And as Shawn Lyon, the President of Marathon Pipe Line said at a recent PST Conference in a session on public engagement, he brought his leadership team to walk the site, learn about the tragedy and understand that safety management means more than “compliance,” it is all about “doing the right thing.”

Ensuring Public Input

Industry standards are written by industry with little or no public input, but regulations, although steered by industry, do require public comment.

Weimer is usually one of the only voices representing the public interest when he is called on to testify at Congressional hearings, industry conferences and meetings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It is a heavy burden on a small organization.

Weimer says, “We need more allies to show up. The pipeline laws that were passed are still full of holes. There is a revolving door between The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the industry where lobbyists become regulators and vice versa. And regulators have a way of being romanced by industry if they don’t ever hear from anyone else.”

We need other voices to push back on industry who write the regulations. That is one of our motivations to provide training — to get more people involved.”

A Win: Excess Flow Valves

PST and Weimer can take credit for many new regulations and agency rules, such as the regulation that requires excess flow values.

In 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had been trying for years to get PHMSA to pass a rule requiring excess flow valves on gas distribution pipelines. It’s just a little plastic valve that will automatically close to cut off the gas to the house if something damages the pipeline. They only cost $10 to $15 a piece to install.

Carl’s testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee for the 2006 Pipeline Safety Act impressed the Committee Chair Senator Frank Lautenberg who told Weimer ‘If you can give me specific language for those excess flow valves in the next couple hours, I’ll make sure it gets in the bill.’

Weimer says, “I went to a Starbucks nearby and sat down with my computer and pulled stuff off the NTSB website and sent him language. And it ended up almost verbatim in that bill, which requires every new house in the country to have one of these excess flow valves on their line.

Weimer’s Roots

Surprisingly, Weimer says that he grew up as someone who was shy and introverted but always sensitive to injustice. His personal history shows how Weimer’s values are based on an early immersion in nature and his coming of age at the start of the environmental movement. He was a senior in High School when Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson came to speak.

Weimer grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the mid 70s and spent every weekend at a cottage on a little lake in Northern Michigan, fishing on the Au Sable River with his father and grandfather. He earned a degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Education at the University of Michigan. His internships with the National Park Service (NPS) led to a love of mountains and so he moved to the West Coast where he did seasonable work for the NPS. As a ranger at Olympic National Park, Weimer lived for several years off the grid in a wilderness area known for having the highest density of black bears. He also devoured the writing and values of environmentalists Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Edward Abbey.

Weimer’s Legacy

Carl’s name has been synonymous with the Pipeline Safety Trust pretty much since its inception. Carl has been responsible in large part for everything the Trust has accomplished in its 17 years since 2003. He’s been very effective in efforts to completely change the public access to information about pipelines — not only at the federal level at PHMSA, but also at state agencies and more recently, even among pipeline operators. The public can now find maps, incident history, inspection histories, who pipeline operators are in an area, and much more. None of that was around when the Trust was formed, and Carl’s been instrumental in fighting for improving transparency of that information so the public can know what’s near them, whether the operators have a troubling incident or enforcement history, and to provide the public a context of other operators so they can make informed judgments about the risks they face by the presence of pipelines in their communities.” (Rebecca Craven)

Now, as Weimer looks to the future, he says he will continue to use his hard won expertise to speak out as an advocate for public safety, clean water and clean energy.

LEARN MORE

The Pipeline Safety Trust

Pipeline Safety Trust Regulatory Comments 1999–2019

Bellingham’s Pipeline Safety Legacy By Carl Weimer

2015 Champions of Change in Transportation

2019 Conference Keynote Jim Hall, Former NTSB Chairman: Twenty Years Later

Q&A: Top Pipeline Safety Advocate on His 15-Year ‘Bambi vs. Godzilla’ Fight

Ellie Goldberg

Written by

Advocate for healthy children, safe schools and sustainable communities. www.healthy-kids.info

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