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DOT Moves to Toughen Pipe Safety Laws

DOT Moves to Toughen Pipe Safety Laws

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued a final rule aimed at toughening the safety standards for large pipelines transporting hazardous liquids through heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas of the nation. The agency further indicated that a comparable rule for natural gas pipelines is on the horizon.

The rule, which calls for regular integrity testing of hazardous liquid lines every five years, would go into effect 60 days after being published in the Federal Register, at which time pipeline operators would have nine months to identify the "entire range of threats" to the integrity of their pipeline segments and a year to develop a written integrity management program. The rule also requires pipeline operators to conduct a baseline assessment of their system within seven years, and sets specific timetables for when repairs must be completed. It would apply only to large liquid lines of 500 or more miles.

Similar rules are being developed for all pipelines under federal and state oversight, including natural gas pipelines, and will be released either later this year or in early 2001, according to the DOT's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS).

While the new rule mandates testing that many pipelines already perform voluntarily, it will double the rate of testing for many operators and will require them to make available for governmental review their plans for assessing and addressing risks that can contribute to pipeline failures, the OPS said.

Starting in a year, the OPS and state inspectors will review pipeline integrity management programs addressing such risks as corrosion, outside force, human errors and material defects, according to the DOT agency.

In addition, President Clinton last Monday directed the DOT to develop a comprehensive plan no later than Jan. 15, 2001 for further improving the safety standards for smaller hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines. "That means that we need to have something out on record by then. That may be just the notice of proposed rulemaking, saying 'this is the direction we would like to take. Now you, the industry and the public, report back to us on whether this is doable,'" said Patricia Klinger, a spokeswoman for DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration, which oversees OPS.

It likely would include guidelines for strengthening enforcement of pipeline safety violators; enhancing federal-state oversight of interstate pipelines; expanding public access to information on pipelines (i.e. incident investigations); and greater coordination of research and development efforts on pipeline integrity between the Department of Energy, state agencies, industry and the public.

While pipeline safety legislation appears to have all but died in Congress this year, Clinton said the administration was taking these steps using its existing authority. The deadly pipeline explosions near Carlsbad, NM, and in Bellingham, WA --- which together killed 15 people in the past two years --- "have underscored the need" to initiate this action, although the administration continues to support passage of a pipeline safety bill on Capitol Hill, the president indicated.

Susan Parker

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