Senate Vows to Pass Pipeline Safety Bill
The Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety
(OPS) came under sharp attack last week on Capitol Hill, with
critics lashing out against the agency for its "poor record" of
ensuring the safe operation of the hundreds of thousands of miles
of natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines that criss-cross the
At a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation Committee on Thursday, the families of three boys
who died as a result of a product pipeline explosion in Bellingham,
WA, last year, the National Transportation Safety Board and even
the DOT itself urged congressional lawmakers to take substantive
legislative action to provide for more thorough inspection of
interstate pipelines by the federal government and states.
The families uniformly asked the Senate panel to pass pipeline
safety legislation that will impose stiffer fines on pipelines in
the event of spills and accidents, better protect pipeline
employees who become whistle-blowers and create a network of
regional advisory councils to help oversee the safety of gas and
hazardous liquids lines. One father went a little bit further in
his request, suggesting that pipes be fined even when accidents are
caused by third-party damage, and that they be shut down completely
when a death occurs or a spill exceeds a certain level.
Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) assured the families
the panel will "bend every effort" to try to mark up pipeline
safety reauthorization legislation and get it through the Senate
this year, but some lawmakers think the chances of this happening
are slim. Since the pipeline explosion last June, a number of
lawmakers have introduced bills, including McCain and practically
the entire delegation of Washington state --- Sen. Patty Murray (D)
and Reps. Jack Metcalf (R) and Jay Inslee (D). Sen. Slade Gorton
(R-WA) is a co-sponsor of the McCain and Murray measures. The
Clinton administration also has introduced its own proposal.
"I think Sen. McCain's bill forms a good foundation.....but I
also believe that Sen. Murray's bill as well as the
administration's bill has a number of good provisions," DOT's
Inspector General Kenneth Mead told the committee. He said Murray's
proposal is "particularly good in encouraging states to have a
role" in pipeline inspections, but he would "draw a distinction" at
allowing the states to enact safety regulations.
Gas pipeline companies dislike both Murray's and the Clinton
administration's pipeline measures, especially the provisions that
call on the states to partner with the federal government in
inspecting pipes for safety hazards.
Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) was the lone supporter of leaving
oversight at the federal level, arguing having 50 different states
overseeing pipe safety would be a "serious mistake." Also, he was
one of the few champions of pipelines at the hearing, saying that
they "have one of the best safety records."
Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson agreed that a "balkanized
patchwork" of state safety regulations would be counter-productive,
but he believes cooperation between states and the federal
government on pipeline inspections is essential. "There's an
important role for states."
The states already are participating more in this area. Last
week, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) directed TXU Corp. to
replace and remove from its gas pipeline system older types of
polyethylene pipe by Dec. 31, 2000. The RRC cited this kind of
pipeline, also known as "Poly I" pipe, as a factor in a house
explosion involving a TXU pipeline in Garland, TX. TXU voluntarily
began removing the "Poly I" pipe from its system in 1997, and
replacing it with a newer generation of polyethylene pipe.
At the hearing, Rep. Inslee proposed that Congress approve
federal certification standards for pipeline operators similar to
those in the trucking and airlines industries. Lawmakers need to
"look very carefully at not just improving the steel, but the
The OPS has "woefully failed" to comply with the mandates
established by Congress in previous pipeline safety reauthorization
bills, said the mother of an 18-year-old boy who died in the
Bellingham accident. She charged the industry is "largely self
As a result of an internal investigation, the DOT's Mead said it
found the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA),
which oversees the OPS, has been "at least five years behind" in
carrying out the pipeline safety mandates of Congress. For example,
the RSPA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking last month "five
years after the statutory due date."
Moreover, the proposed rulemaking only addressed pipeline
operator standards for hazardous liquids pipelines; it ignored
"inspections for over 300,000 miles of natural gas transmission
pipelines." Proposed standards for gas lines won't come out until
either later this year or early next year.
Mead further criticized the RSPA for maintaining unreliable data
addressing pipeline accidents and the adequacy of certain
technologies in identifying and preventing pipe failures. For
example, while most hazardous liquids pipes can use smart pigs to
detect certain kinds of defects, such as corrosion, "we found that
incredibly [the] RSPA does not have estimates [on the number of]
natural gas pipelines that can be pigged. One of the largest
natural gas pipeline companies [told me] that only about 15% of
their pipeline could accommodate pigs."
Moreover, although some members of Congress urged increased
hydrostatic testing of pipelines to detect seam failures, Mead
warned that "you should know that type of testing can harm or
weaken a pipe, and does not determine the extent or severity of
defects." He urged more research into developing advanced smart
John Hammerschmidt of the National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) criticized OPS for largely ignoring many of the
recommendations the NTSB has made over the years with respect to
training and testing of pipeline personnel. "Inadequate training
continues to be a factor in pipeline accidents."
Excavation damage remains a leading cause of pipeline accidents,
according to Hammerschmidt. "This issue is on the safety board's
'Most Wanted' list." In fact, in December 1997, the board proposed
26 recommendations aimed at improving excavation-damage prevention.
He noted RSPA Administrator Kelley Coyner also "takes this issue
very seriously," adding that hopefully it will receive "favorable
action" on its recommendations this time.