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Senate Vows to Pass Pipeline Safety Bill

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 nation.

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 humans" also.

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 regulated."

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 pigs.

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.

Susan Parker

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