Senate Passes Bill Boosting Pipeline Safety

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 8, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed a bill to considerably strengthen safety regulations for fuel pipelines. The measure, written after a pipeline accident killed three young men last year, gained momentum when a pipeline explosion killed 12 people in New Mexico last month.


Two million miles of pipeline criss-cross the United States (All photos courtesy Office of Pipeline Safety)
The King and Tsiorvas Pipeline Safety Improvement Act (S 2438), would boost pipeline safety by increasing penalties for safety violations, increasing state oversight of pipelines within their borders, and requiring pipeline companies to publicly disclose information about pipelines on the Internet.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, wrote the bill with Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, after a gasoline pipeline explosion in June 1999 killed two ten year old boys, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, and an 18 year old man, Liam Wood.

On August 19, a pipeline explosion near Carlsbad, New Mexico, killed 12 members of a vacationing family camped near the pipeline, including several infants and children.

"Under this bill, pipelines will be inspected, operators will be qualified, whistleblowers will be protected and violators will be penalized," said Senator Murray. "This bill doesn't just raise pipeline safety standards. It gives us the tools, the enforcement and funding to ensure that pipeline companies reach those standards."

"I commend the Senate for taking action today on the important issue of pipeline safety," said Vice President Al Gore in a statement. "And I urge the House to take up pipeline safety legislation soon, so that we can enact a strong, new pipeline safety law before the end of the year. The tragic accidents that occurred near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and in Bellingham, Washington, underscore the need for an enhanced federal pipeline safety program."


The pipeline explosion in New Mexico left a crater crater 86 feet long, 46 feet wide and 20 feet deep
The measure includes a $13 million a year funding increase for the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), which has blamed insufficient funding and personnel for its incomplete picture of the location and safety status of much of the nationís two million miles of pipelines.

Pipeline operators would, for the first time, be required to submit detailed reports to OPS about their safety tests and inspections, as well as comprehensive leak prevention plans.

Pipeline companies would be required to demonstrate to the federal Department of Transportation, which oversees pipeline operations, that their employees have been adequately trained.

Under the bill, pipeline workers who blow the whistle about safety problems they discover would receive federal protection.

The top fines for safety violations would be raised from $500,000 to $1 million, and the bill would remove existing caps on the amount of money a company can be forced to pay in damages.

Other measures include a $3 million a year fund for research into safer materials and new inspection techniques, and language requiring pipeline companies to report statistics on their pipelines and information on safety plans to the public. Some of this information would be posted on the Internet.

State and local officials would have the authority to evaluate all pipeline safety plans regarding pipelines that cross their regions.

The threshold for reporting fuel spills from leaking pipelines would be lowered from 2,100 gallons to five gallons.


Many pipelines, those the one that ruptured in New Mexico, run above ground over part of their length
"This bill will significantly reduce both the number and the severity of future accidents," said Washington Senator Slade Gorton, a Republican who has also fought for stricter pipeline safety over the past year. "It is a marked improvement from the status quo.

But Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, said he would support even tougher measures in the House version of the bill. "We've got to pass a bill that's got teeth," said Inslee. "The days of giving discretion to bureaucrats is over."

Family members of the young men killed in Washington last year also said the Senate version is not tough enough. Several traveled to Washington, DC to lobby in support of pipeline safety reforms.

"Right now, to the Senate, my son is a statistic," said Frank King, father of Wade. At a press conference hosted by several Washington House members, King called the Senate bill "worthless."

"Until the Senate passes a bill that fines these guys heavily when they have a spill or a break, nothing is going to change," King said.

Industry representatives said the bill could cost pipeline operators millions of dollars in new bureaucracy.

But Katherine Dalen, mother of Stephen Tsiorvas, had a message for pipeline operators. "Your profit means little to us in the face of the lives we care about," she said.

Since 1986, there have been more than 5,700 pipeline accidents, which killed more than 300 people and released some six million gallons of oil, gas and other environmental pollutants.