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Products Line Failure Spotlights Pipeline Safety

Products Line Failure Spotlights Pipeline Safety

The fallout from a June products pipeline explosion in the Pacific Northwest is spilling over into the realm of natural gas, with renewed calls for greater regulation, inspection and more local control of pipelines.

In the wake of such incidents, "sometimes it's hard [for people] to differentiate between the pipelines" so they focus on all types of lines, said Terry Boss, vice president of environment, safety and operations at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), who testified last week at a hearing in Bellevue, WA.

It was the fourth public hearing held by a task force that was set up by Washington Gov. Gary Locke following the explosion in Bellingham, WA, which killed three. It occurred when nearly 300,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from Olympic Pipe Line into a nearby stream and ignited. The group has been exploring a number of issues, such as potential gaps in federal and state jurisdiction over pipelines, states' roles in imposing environmental standards, an overhaul of the state process for siting new pipes, assessment of fees on pipes to pay for emergency-response training, tighter operator qualifications and periodic inspections of interstate lines in sensitive areas. It has been asked to submit a report and recommendations by the end of the year.

On Capitol Hill, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is considering holding a hearing on pipeline safety this fall, but has not scheduled it yet. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) successfully has convinced Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater to hire a new pipeline inspector for Washington. Previously, the state had none. In the state Legislature, "I know...there's all kinds of legislation being proposed," said one observer, who added "who knows where it's all going to end up." The recommendations that come out of Gov. Locke's task force are expected to find their way into legislation.

"I would probably classify this one as the Edison of the liquids industry," INGAA's Boss said, referring to the 1994 explosion of Texas Eastern Transmission's line in Edison, NJ, which caused one fatality and lead to numerous calls for greater pipeline safety measures and tighter oversight of pipeline facilities. "When I talked to the [Office of] Pipeline Safety, I think they feel that the environment is as focused and intense now as it was then [following Edison], if not more so," agreed Beverly Chipman, a spokeswoman for Williams Gas Pipeline West, which includes Northwest Pipeline that runs through Washington.

"I think the impact is there's a tremendous amount of pressure being put on the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) because of this incident, primarily through some local groups there" and by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Boss noted. Partly in response to the Olympic incident, the Department of Transportation's OPS has adopted a final rule requiring liquids and natural gas pipelines to develop a written qualification program for operator employees and contractors. It's been estimated that the cost for the pipeline industry to comply with the rule will be about $59 million a year. The rule, whose aim is to provide an "additional level of safety," would take effect in three years.

And pipelines are feeling the heat. "I think all the pipelines in the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire United States, because of what's going on in Washington and the criticism of OPS and such are fielding questions and are having to be more diligent with their education efforts in the communities they serve," Chipman said.

"I would say that overall for everybody in the pipeline [industry] and even the local utility companies are feeling a real sensitivity to the importance of reassuring people about how safe pipelines are," she noted. During the first task force hearing in July, it was noted that Northwest Pipeline has had four pipeliine failures in Washington due to landslides since 1995, as well as a leak due to human error and a rupture caused by a weld defect.

At the task-force level, "what they are doing is bringing up [issues] like operator qualifications...because there was some question about the performance of the personnel. They're talking about integrity management. Olympic has just made an agreement with the city of Bellingham to do some extraordinary measures, which raises questions about franchises and local control. There's a lot of issues about local control versus state [or] federal control," Boss said.

A number of towns in Washington have franchise agreements with Olympic and other pipelines. Under the agreements, pipes get to cross public property, and local governments, in return, can charge fees and make other demands. Some localities are using their franchise agreements to extract strict safety precautions that Olympic previously had asserted was beyond the control of local governments. They see the franchises as the "magic bullet" for exerting greater leverage over pipelines, which are subject to either state or federal regulation, and are using them to demand tougher pipeline-safety requirements - possibly even tougher than the federal government's standards.

How will this affect natural gas pipelines? "There's always possibilities out there, and that's why we're monitoring this so closely," Boss said.

Susan Parker

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