Collaboration in Civic Spheres

IRS overpaid $100B in earned income credit from ’03-’11

by April 29th, 2012

An audit report from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Inspector General For Tax Administration says the Internal Revenue Service has overpaid U.S. taxpayers between $99 billion and $119 billion in earned income tax credit (EITC) payments, or allowances, from fiscal year 2003 through fiscal 2011. The 2011 estimate was $13.7 billion to $16.7 billion. The EITC is a tax benefit for low- and moderate-income workers. The Treasury audit notes the EITC overpayment estimates actually come from the IRS itself.

Yet another sticky-fingered caper reported at UW-Seattle

by April 27th, 2012

Adding to a continuing series of revelations on ethical and fiscal misconduct at the University of Washington in Seattle, the university’s Office of Internal Audit has in response to a Washington State Public Records Act request by Public Data Ferret, released a report detailing the misappropriation of $6,555 from the UW Chemistry Department by a fiscal specialist named Deanna K. Brewer. She had been allowed wide latitude in processing cash and check deposits for office and lab keys, and the handling of related refunds. Several public records sources reveal that Brewer is 43, and lives in the Rainier View neighborhood in far southeast Seattle.

Audit: Iraq elections contractor falls short, wins renewal

by April 26th, 2012

An audit by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the federal government’s USAID agency says that what turned into a seven-year, $102 million contractor-driven effort to bring fair and open elections to Iraq has failed to become sustainable by Iraqi officials without outside help. Yet despite that concern the USAID contractor, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), whose board of directors is composed of high-octane Washington, D.C. insiders and business and non-profit luminaries, got a $36 million extension for follow-up work for another three years from October 2011 to October 2014.

Data viz: major U.S. pipeline incidents, 2008-2010

by April 23rd, 2012

A study released by the Congressional Research Service on U.S. energy pipeline management and security says that despite potential vulnerability to accidental malfunction or purposeful sabotage, the risk of a terrorist threat is low, but safety oversight could be improved, particularly by beefing up staffing of inspectors. Roughly 170,000 miles of pipeline in the United States carry material that is toxic, flammable, or otherwise dangerous, including approximately 75% of the nation’s crude oil. Around 200 interstate pipelines account for about 80% of United States pipeline use.

Vast network, some fatal accidents, property damage
Overall, pipeline discharges cause few deaths. Hazardous liquid pipelines caused an average of 1.8 fatalities yearly from 2006 to 2010, while natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline accidents caused an average of 3.0 and 9.8 deaths yearly over the same time period. However, an individual pipeline accident can cause significant damage and loss of life. A gasoline pipeline in Bellingham, Washington, exploded in 1999, killing three people and causing millions of dollars in property damage. In 2000, a natural gas pipeline exploded near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and killed 12 campers. Pipeline breakages can release of thousands of gallons of hazardous material; a leak caused by corrosion on the North Slope of Alaska released more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil in 2006, and in 2011 a pipeline spill in Montana released approximately 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

Following is a mapped data visualization of U.S. pipeline accidents from 2008-10 that caused fatalities and/or more than $5 million USD of damage. Click on individual points to see more data; click and drag to move the map. Click on the +/- signs to zoom in or out. Click the “x” to close a pop-up box.

Data sources: The Congressional Research Service
PHMSA Incident Reports

Pipeline security threats elsewhere, but not so much in U.S.
Pipelines may also be vulnerable to purposeful sabotage; in the case of certain pipelines, this may even extend to computer-based attacks. Groups in Mexico, Colombia, and Nigeria have made efforts to bomb pipelines in their respective countries, and pipelines in British Columbia were bombed six times between 2008 and 2009. While pipelines make tempting targets, the United States has not experienced a major attack by an individual or group on its pipelines. According to the CRS report, recent threat assessments indicate that, realistically speaking, the risk of a foreign or domestic terrorist attack on U.S. pipelines is very low.

A series of oversight laws have been passed
Under the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-481) and the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-129) state that the Transportation Secretary has authority to regulate the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and response planning for interstate pipelines. A presidential decision during the Clinton administration assigned main responsibility for pipeline security to the Department of Transportation, while the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-355) created an inter-agency committee meant to streamline the review process for new pipelines. The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act also included “whistle blower” protection and required that operators of regulated natural gas pipelines in high-consequence areas to implement risk analysis and management procedures similar to those used for oil pipelines.

Additionally, President Bush established the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2004 within the Department of Transportation. President Bush also signed into law the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act of 2006 (PIPES Act, P.L. 109-468). This bill created a program of grants given to states for damage prevention efforts. It also mandated a minimum standard for integrity management of natural gas pipelines. Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration was created and given the authority to handle pipeline security operations.

Pipeline safety inspector staffing a challenge
Due to a relative dearth of qualified applicants, delays in the hiring process, and inspector turnover, the PHMSA inspector program is often understaffed. The recession has also affected PHMSA, forcing numerous budget cuts and preventing expanded inspector hiring, according to the CRS.

Automatic shut-off valves not mandated by DOT
The TSA also requires greater resources for pipeline security, since air transportation has received comparatively enormous amounts of money and personnel. In order to more fully secure pipelines, some have argued for the installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves; particularly since the San Bruno incident of 2010 in which a natural gas pipeline exploded, killing eight people. However, the DOT concluded that automatic shutoff valves would not activate in time to stop an explosion and would be susceptible to false alarms. Such installations would also require significant investments in time and capital, and would probably raise transmission rates for all concerned. However, the PHMSA mandated that all single-family homes recieve excess flow valves, which can minimize the amount of natural gas that escapes in the event of a leak.

Some issues still remain. New regulations may be required since oil sands, often imported from Canada, are significantly more corrosive to current pipe materials. Maintenance of accurate, complete, and current pipeline system records is difficult, and debates over the best practices for pipeline inspection continue. Overall, however, industries and federal agencies have generally increased pipeline safety over the past decade.

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

Vashon schools eye classroom cuts to close budget gap

by April 20th, 2012

A short ferry ride but galaxies removed from the commotion of Seattle, the unincorporated King County community of Vashon Island is sylvan, artsy, and laid back. The size of Manhattan, it is home to 10,624. Organic farmers, dreadlocked 30-somethings, and the quietly well-to-do live and let live, surrounded by water and views of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Range. But though Vashon is a respite from the workaday world across Puget Sound, it’s not immune to the same pressures facing the public sector elsewhere. The Vashon School District recently began grappling with possible cuts for the 2012-13 year to class offerings, teaching and non-teaching staff, to help close a projected budget gap of $500,000 to $700,000.

Non-violent crime in Washington state: the data say it pays

by April 18th, 2012

Nine years of Washington figures released recently in the Office of Financial Management’s wide-ranging state Data Book show that with the exception of murder and assault, the odds are long here that criminals will even be arrested, much less convicted. The data suggest that close to nine of ten burglars go scot-free in Washington state, as do more than 19 of 20 car thieves, and more than four of five who commit other thefts. For violent crimes, arrests are more frequent but not always the norm. More than two of three robbers get away with it, as, disturbingly, have more than two of three – and more recently, three of four – reported rapists. For assault, the odds of arrest are almost one in two; and for murder, lately all but certain.

WA: one in five social programs checked don’t pencil out

by April 17th, 2012

A new report from the Washington legislature’s non-partisan policy analysis unit, the Washington State Institute For Public Policy, finds that of 98 programs recently reviewed for what researchers liken to an investment advisor’s “buy-sell” list, 79 pass muster financially, with measured per-participant financial benefits to the state which exceed costs; but 19 do not. Another 45 which are identified, haven’t been recently evaluated for cost effectiveness, the report says. Of the new results in the April 2012 report – titled “Return On Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes” – the so-called “net present value” (benefits to the state per participant minus costs) was highest for a series of juvenile justice and adult criminal justice programs, and lowest for a sub-group of child and teen prevention and preK-12 education programs including Early Head Start and Even Start.

U.S. audit accents broad problems at VA’s Puget Sound hospitals

by April 13th, 2012

A new oversight report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General (OIG) identifies problems with sedation safety, colorectal cancer screening, sanitation, medication management, coordination of care, quality assurance and patient satisfaction at the VA’s Puget Sound Health Care System-Seattle, for vets who’ve served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The audit covers a look into quality of care at just the system’s hospital complex on Columbian Way in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the VA Hospital at American Lakes in Lakewood, Wash., near Tacoma – but not its additional seven Western Washington clinics, confirmed a VA OIG official in Washington, D.C. VA Puget Sound Seattle calls itself “the primary referral site for the VA’s Northwest Region” serving 80,000 veterans in several states. Care is provided in collaboration with physicians of the University of Washington’s UW Medicine unit.