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DOT's Pipe Safety Bill is 'Overkill,' Pipelines Say

DOT's Pipe Safety Bill is 'Overkill,' Pipelines Say

Some say the long-awaited pipeline safety reauthorization legislation that was unveiled by the Clinton administration earlier last week is a pipeline's worst nightmare come true. It imposes tougher safety standards, gives the Department of Transportation (DOT) more inspection muscle, quadruples the amount of civil penalties for violators, enhances criminal enforcement and strengthens the role of states in inspecting pipelines.

The DOT's bill, the Pipeline Safety and Community Protection Act of 2000, applies to interstate oil and natural gas pipelines. It authorizes $30.1 million for pipeline safety activities for fiscal year 2001, and similar amounts for 2002 through 2004. This is about $10 million more than the current funding for pipeline safety.

Of the $30 million, more than half ($17 million) is earmarked for grants for state pipeline safety programs during fiscal year 2001. The DOT bill proposes similar funding levels for fiscal years 2002 through 2004. With this endowment, states would be able to supplement federal oversight of interstate pipeline operations, including monitoring new construction and investigating accidents.

Critics of the administration's pipeline safety record applauded the measure, which was introduced in the Senate last week by Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-MD). Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who authored a pipeline safety bill of her own following a pipeline accident in Bellingham, WA, last year that claimed three lives, called the bill "constructive." The DOT bill, which was developed in conjunction with Murray and her staff, "includes many of my priorities."

Not surprisingly, gas pipelines aren't big fans of the DOT measure, S. 2409. "It's regulatory overkill in the extreme," said a pipeline source. Pipelines especially don't like "the bill's open-ended language that gives states authority to regulate pipes" with respect to safety.

Pipelines intend to lobby Congress to "get a bill that addresses the legitimate problems [involving safety] without overreacting," he said. "We also want to make sure [Congress understands] that the gas industry already does a great deal" on safety. He estimated the gas pipeline industry spends about $3,500 per mile each year on ensuring the safety of its lines.

The bill, if approved by Congress, would go into effect for natural gas pipelines, as well as hazardous liquid pipelines located in sparsely populated areas, within two years of enactment. But it would take effect in December of this year for hazardous liquid operators of more than 500 miles that are located in densely populated or environmentally sensitive areas.

The initiative calls for pipelines to establish comprehensive safety programs to assess the conditions of their systems. Specifically, the DOT initiative requires: 1) internal inspections, pressure testing or other best achievable technology performed on a periodic basis; 2) the use of clearly defined criteria for analyzing the inspection or testing; 3) immediate repair of any problems found; and 4) the use of measures (such as emergency-flow restricting devices and leak detection) that prevent and mitigate the consequences of a release of gas, hazardous liquid or hazardous substance.

The measure further clarifies the authority of DOT Secretary Rodney E. Slater to obtain records, interview persons performing safety-sensitive functions for pipeline operators, as well as to inspect pipelines. Also, the initiative increases by four-fold the maximum civil penalties for pipeline safety violators, and it authorizes, for the first time, the assessment of civil penalties in successful lawsuits brought by private citizens. It further states that excavators who "knowingly and willfully" disregard the one-call notification requirements will be prosecuted.

The DOT legislation seeks to enhance criminal enforcement of the pipeline statute. Additionally, it includes a "right-to-know" provision requiring pipeline operators to provide public and local communities with access to pipeline safety information, including incident reports and safety-related condition reports. Other information, such as pipeline maps and pipeline safety programs, would be furnished to state and local emergency response authorities.

DOT also contemplates the creation of a national depository for information related to pipeline failures. Lastly, the bill supports the establishment of research partnerships between industry and academia to develop new inspection tools and technologies. Susan Parker

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