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Dingell Urges Major Review Of Office of Pipeline Safety

Dingell Urges Major Review Of Office of Pipeline Safety

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, has called on Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater to undertake a "thorough review and restructuring" of the department's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) in the wake of a new report that contends OPS officials have become too cozy with the pipelines that they are supposed to bee regulating.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, coupled with a recent report by the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Inspector General, "paints a picture of an agency that places disturbing amounts of faith in the industry it is supposed to regulate, and is unable or willing to carry out any of its responsibility under the law," wrote Dingell, who commissioned the GAO report, in a June 14 letter to Slater.

It concluded that OPS has an "abysmal" record of monitoring and overseeing natural gas and hazardous product pipelines, Dingell said, and that its officials continue to "brazenly thumb their noses" at the administration and Congress by consistently failing to carry out their directions with respect to pipeline safety standards.

Although OPS's enforcement action increased by 132% between 1990 and 1998, the agency in many of the cases opted to send letters to the pipeline safety violators rather than imposing monetary penalties, the GAO said. It estimated the OPS's use of penalties dropped 90% between 1990 and 1998, while the agency's use of letters rose to 68% by 1998. And even in cases where penalties were levied, they were "relatively insignificant compared to pipeline revenues," and were only "occasionally collected" by the agency, Dingell said of the GAO findings.

At the same time, the number of major pipeline accident resulting in death, injury or more than $50,000 in property damage rose 4% annually between 1989 and 1998, according to the report. Major pipeline accidents killed 226 people, injured more than 1,030 and caused about $700 million in property damage during that period --- with about 43% of the accidents occurring on natural gas distribution lines, the GAO said.

In contrast, hazardous liquid pipelines, which account for the smallest portion of total pipeline mileage, actually have had almost eight times as many major accidents per mile as gas distribution lines, while natural gas transmission lines have had about three times as many major accidents per mile, the report contends.

Despite this accident rate, the OPS historically has had the lowest rate of any transportation agency for implementing the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), as well as the mandates of Congress. The GAO report contends the OPS has failed to implement nearly half of the 49 requirements mandated by Congress since 1988 to improve the safety of pipelines and enhance the agency's ability to oversee the pipeline industry. For example, it pointed out that the OPS failed to evaluate and make recommendations on whether risk-management principles should be incorporated into the federal pipeline safety program.

As such, including risk management in OPS regulations "is unjustified at this time because OPS has yet to produce a shred of credible, quantifiable evidence to support its claim that allowing industry to police itself is beneficial to the protection of public health and the environment," Dingell told DOT's Slater.

The GAO report further assailed the OPS for attempting to discontinue the use of the states to help conduct inspections of interstate pipelines.

Susan Parker

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