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Federal Regulators Propose Hefty Fine Against Transco for Pipe Safety Violations

Reflecting a get-tough policy to improve pipeline operator safety, federal pipeline safety regulators have proposed a hefty $600,000 fine against Williams's Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line for federal violations that resulted in the release of natural gas and evacuation of school children and residents in a densely populated area in northern Virginia in October.

The action by the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) followed the agency's investigation of an Oct. 3, 2005 incident in Chantilly, VA, in which Williams workers struck the 36-inch diameter Transco gas pipeline while carrying out routine maintenance operations.

"Our investigation into this incident identified safety procedure lapses which operators must prevent. The action we are taking is aggressive, and [is] meant to underscore the importance of safe excavations and proper operator qualifications," said Brigham A. McCown, acting administrator for the PHMSA, which oversees the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS).

The probe by PHMSA's inspectors revealed that Williams failed to properly locate its underground pipelines for digging or excavation activities; failed to ensure that personnel performing the tasks were appropriately qualified; did not follow written procedures for conducting operations and maintenance activities; and neglected to provide proper pipeline records, including construction maps, to appropriate personnel, the agency said.

Williams was cited with a notice of probable violation outlining each of the specific violations discovered during the investigation, according to the PHMSA. The proposed fine reflects the PHMSA's stepped-up effort to improve operator safety performance and promote compliance, McCown said. He noted that his agency is considering tougher requirements for all operator qualifications as a result of the Chantilly mishap and similar incidents.

As part of its response, McCown said, Williams has been ordered to conduct its own investigation to determine the cause of the incident and implement a plan to improve future investigation and excavation processes. The PHMSA also is issuing an advisory bulletin to operators outlining existing federal requirements to follow when conducting excavation activities.

The 10,500-mile Transco system transports 6.5 Bcf/d of gas from the Gulf Coast to markets in the Southeast and East.

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