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DOT Head Unveils Pipeline Safety Campaign

In response to a series of headline-grabbing oil and natural gas pipeline explosions in recent months, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday launched a national pipeline safety initiative aimed at repairing and replacing aging pipelines to avert potentially catastrophic incidents. The initiative includes several proposals that were contained in legislation sent to Congress last year.

In a speech in Allentown, PA, the site of a deadly gas pipeline blast in February, LaHood called upon U.S. pipeline owners and operators to conduct a comprehensive review of their oil, hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines to identify areas of high risk and accelerate critical repair and replacement work. He also announced federal legislation aimed at strengthening oversight of pipelines, as well as plans to convene a pipeline safety forum April 18 in Washington, DC, for state officials, industry leaders and other pipeline safety stakeholders to discuss steps to improve pipe safety.

"People deserve to know that they can turn on the lights, the heat or the stove without endangering their families and neighbors," LaHood said. He was joined by Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), and other federal, state and local officials to unveil the DOT's new pipeline safety plan.

The PHMSA oversees the safety of more than 2.5 million miles of oil, hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines, which are operated by approximately 3,000 companies.

Over the last three years annual fatalities as a result of pipeline incidents have risen from nine in 2008 to 13 in 2009 and to 22 in 2010. The 10-year average number of fatalities has been 15, according to DOT. However the department said pipeline incidents resulting in serious injury or death are down nearly 50% over the last 20 years. In 1991 there were 67 such incidents compared to 36 in 2010, and an average of 42 per year over the last 10 years, according to the department.

The department's safety campaign follows two deadly pipeline explosions in Allentown and San Bruno, CA. In February the pipeline explosion in Allentown killed five people, including a four-month-old child (see Daily GPI, Feb. 11). The blast, which was apparently triggered by a "break" in UGI Corp.'s underground natural gas pipeline, affected a total of 47 properties, including 10 businesses, and forced more than 750 people to evacuate over a three-block area.

In September eight people were killed, dozens were wounded and parts of the suburban neighborhood of San Bruno, CA, were leveled when a pipeline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. exploded (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13, 2010). The National Transportation Safety Board is still working to determine the cause of the blast. And in July 2010 a failure occurred in a 30-inch diameter Enbridge oil pipeline, releasing approximately 19,500 bbl of crude oil into a tributary creek of the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, MI.

In addition to seeking a comprehensive review of the nation's pipeline infrastructure, LaHood has called on Congress to increase the maximum civil penalties for pipeline violations to $250,000 per day from $100,000 per day, and to $2.5 million for a series of violations from the current $1 million. He further asked Congress to give the DOT the authority to close regulatory loopholes, strengthen risk management requirements, add more inspectors, and improve data reporting to help identify potential pipeline safety risks early.

Immediately following the pipeline blast in San Bruno LaHood sent legislation, the "Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2010," to Congress calling on lawmakers to take many of the same steps. The bill also sought the addition of 40 inspection and enforcement personnel over the next four years (see Daily GPI, Sept. 16, 2010).

DOT said its action plan will address immediate concerns in pipeline safety, such as ensuring that pipeline operators know the age and condition of their pipelines, proposing new regulations to bolster reporting and inspection requirements, and making information about pipelines and the safety record of pipeline operators easily accessible to the public.

Responding to the pipeline accidents, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), which represents interstate gas pipes, adopted a set of five guiding principles last month for pipeline safety, including a "goal of zero accidents -- a perfect record of safety and reliability for the national pipeline system," said INGAA President Don Santa.

"We intend to work every day toward a perfect safety record, and we are glad to have the Transportation Department and Secretary LaHood as a strong and committed partner in this effort."

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