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Oberstar: Clinton Pipe Safety Decree Falls Short

Oberstar: Clinton Pipe Safety Decree Falls Short

An advocate of stiff pipeline safety laws, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) last week said he was "generally supportive" of the recent move by the Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety's (OPS) to toughen the requirements for safety inspections of large hazardous liquid pipelines. But he believes President Clinton's decree to the agency to beef up the safety standards for small liquid and natural gas pipelines came up short.

"I am pleased that pipeline safety has risen to a level where the president has taken the unusual step of directing action by the Department of Transportation. However, I am concerned over the lack of specificity in some of [his] directives," Oberstar, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on pipeline safety in Washington D.C last Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Clinton directed the OPS to develop a comprehensive plan by Jan. 15 to improve safety standards for small hazardous liquid and gas pipelines. "I would have preferred the president to have directed the OPS to issue [a notice of proposed rulemaking] by Jan. 15," Oberstar said.

"Without an NPRM in place, there is a possibility that a new administration of either party will want to take a step back and reassess the issues" before moving forward, he told NTSB commissioners, industry executives and inspection experts at the hearing, which was called in the wake of the deadly explosion on the El Paso Natural Gas system this past summer.

Oberstar helped to drive back an effort by House Republicans last month to pass what was seen as a weak pipeline safety bill, effectively killing any chance for such legislation to emerge from Congress this year.

Complementing Clinton's action was the release by the OPS of a final rule requiring that large hazardous liquid pipelines periodically inspect their systems at least once every five years, use internal inspection tools or pressure tests to conduct inspections, meet specific deadlines for repairing system defects and develop integrity management plans. In the rule, the OPS vowed to review each pipeline inspection plan.

Kelley S. Coyner, administrator of the DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration, which oversees OPS, said the department would need to double the number of its pipeline inspectors to 110 to carry out the new rule. She noted she plans to ask for an additional $20 million in funding for inspectors and to conduct additional research.

NTSB Acting Chairman Jim Hall said the new OPS rule "appears to be the first step to ensuring that pipelines are properly inspected and tested." The NTSB has been calling for mandatory pipeline inspections --- by in-line inspection devices, such as smart pigs --- since the late 1980s.

Andrew Drake of Duke Energy said he was especially concerned by Hall's singular emphasis on in-line devices for conducting inspections, saying that the NTSB chairman seems to view these as a "silver bullet."

"These [OPS] requirements are critically important," said Oberstar, who believes the "mandatory inspections" will prevent future tragedies involving pipelines. "The need for regular inspections is particularly acute because of the age of our pipeline system." He estimated that one-fourth of the gas pipelines currently in operation are more than 50 years old.

Had mandatory, periodic inspections of pipelines been in place earlier, he believes the August explosion on the El Paso system in New Mexico - which killed 12 people - could have been avoided. The NTSB, which still is investigating the blast, has said that failed sections of El Paso had significant internal corrosion and pipe-wall loss of more than 50% in some areas. The NTSB's Hall further said the 50-year-old pipeline had never been properly tested.

"I believe that inspections probably would have uncovered these corrosion problems before they led to a tragedy. Without requiring pipeline inspections, there will be more tragedies," warned Oberstar.

The Congressman had a problem with one aspect of the OPS rule that would give hazardous liquid lines seven years to conduct their first --- or baseline --- inspection of their systems. Although the NTSB, the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency argued in favor of baseline inspections being completed in five years, the OPS said the pipeline internal inspection industry didn't have enough "human and mechanical resources" to internally inspect every pipeline in the five-year timetable.

The DOT agency concluded that the pipe inspection industry had "inadequate capacity for internal inspections over the next five years...based largely on a brief memorandum from a consultant," Oberstar noted. He urged the OPS to conduct studies to resolve this issue.

More generally, he criticized the DOT for its poor track record on issuing regulations. In fact, the DOT's own inspector general (IG) has concluded that it takes the department, on average, twice as long to issue rules than it did just six years ago. In 1993, the DOT issued 45 rules and averaged 1.8 years on each; last year, it released 20 rules and averaged 3.8 years on each.

"The IG concluded, and I agree, that the problem is basically a management problem," Oberstar said. "What we need are management reforms to improve the process. DOT's senior management must make it clear that it gives a high priority to completing rules on schedule."

If the OPS needs more lawyers to work on pipeline safety rules, he said DOT Secretary Rodney Slater should expand the legal staff or reassign lawyers from elsewhere in the department.

"In addition to resources, [the] OPS and the department must have the political will to go forward with the necessary regulations, possibly in the face of objections and delaying tactics by a powerful and sophisticated industry."

Susan Parker

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