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Pipes, LDCs Piqued at Being Labeled 'Time Bombs'

Pipes, LDCs Piqued at Being Labeled 'Time Bombs'

Major trade groups for interstate natural gas pipelines and local distributors last week rallied to defend their members against allegations that painted them and other energy delivery systems as ticking "time bombs."

In a joint letter-to-the-editor published in USA Today last Monday, the presidents of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and the American Gas Association (AGA) responded to a March 14 article that carried the headline: "When Pipelines Are Time Bombs: 2 Million Miles of Them Deliver Potential Catastrophe Every Day." The associations reportedly were more irritated with the headline than the actual story.

The newspaper article reported there were 3,917 liquid fuel spills and natural gas leaks by pipelines during the 1990s, roughly one a day. These incidents mostly involved local distribution company (LDC) gas lines, and resulted in 201 deaths, 2,826 injuries and $778 million in property damage, it said.

The story appeared the day after the Senate Commerce Committee held a field hearing on pipeline safety legislation in Bellingham, WA. Bellingham was the site of a major product pipeline rupture and subsequent explosion last summer, which left three dead. Although the incident involved a product line, the public outcry for greater safety and government oversight has been directed at all kinds of energy pipelines, including gas delivery systems.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who has sponsored the Pipeline Safety Act of 2000 in Congress, testified at the Commerce hearing, providing an even bleaker estimate for the death toll arising from pipeline incidents. Since 1986, she said 5,700 pipeline accidents have occurred, resulting in 325 deaths and 1,500 injuries.

"They have shattered communities from coast to coast. There are literally hundreds of 'Bellinghams' out there, and there are hundreds more waiting to happen. On average, there is one reported pipeline spill in our country every day," she told the Senate panel.

Her pipeline safety legislation has pipeline companies especially concerned because it would, among other things, expand the safety-inspection authority of states over all types of pipes. That would mean pipelines would be hit with a double whammy --- safety inspections by states and the federal government.

Responding to the USA Today story, INGAA President Jerald V. Halvorsen and AGA President David N. Parker countered that pipelines were considered "the nation's safest method of transporting fuel." They reminded critics that the gas industry spends more than $2 billion a year to ensure safety, and that a "great majority" of gas pipeline accidents are caused by careless digging by third-party contractors, not pipelines. The industry spearheaded the drive for a national one-call law, which was enacted in 1998, to address this problem, they wrote.

But the claim that pipelines are the "safest form" of transportation for fuel falls short, wrote Lois Epstein, senior engineer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington D.C., in a separate letter-to-the-editor in USA Today. It "ignores the environmental damage caused by pipeline ruptures and shifts attention from what Congress and [the OPS] office could be doing now to make pipelines safer."

The OPS has come under heavy attack in the wake of the Bellingham explosion. Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the OPS deserves a "grade of F," according to the USA Today story. He noted the OPS has been the "most frustrating area" that he's had to deal with since his term as chairman began in 1994, and that no other agency has a poorer record of responding to NTSB recommendations.

Moreover, the Inspector General of DOT turned up several shortcomings in the inspection practices and training of OPS pipeline inspectors during a recent internal review, which was conducted at the request of Sen. Murray.

Susan Parker

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