Explosion fears: House OKs pipeline safety bill; Senate up next
A pipeline safety bill that gained momentum after a spate of incidents around the country, including last year’s deadly explosion in Northern California, won House approval Monday in a rare display of bipartisanship.
The measure, which passed on a voice vote, is expected to move quickly through the Senate to President Obama for his expected signature. Its approval comes 15 months after a pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people, injured dozens and destroyed 38 homes.
"This bill takes a very important step forward in improving pipeline safety," said San Bruno’s congresswoman, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough). "But there is more that must be done."
The bill would double the maximum fine for safety violations to $2 million, authorize more pipeline inspectors and require automatic shutoff valves on new or replaced pipelines "where economically, technically and operationally feasible."
But it does not include a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to require such shut-off valves on existing pipelines in heavily populated areas.
The requirement for automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves on existing pipelines has been debated in Congress since at least a 1994 pipeline blast in Edison, N.J., in which it took two and a half hours to manually shut off the gas. In the San Bruno blast, it took utility workers nearly 95 minutes to shut off the gas.
California has taken steps to strengthen pipeline safety rules, including requiring automatic shut-off valves in vulnerable areas, Speier noted. But, she added, "When you saw that ball of fire raging for an hour and a half before they were able to turn off the gas, that is something that has to be addressed on a national basis."
The requirement has run into industry opposition because of the cost. Still, Speier said that she has called on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department oversees pipelines, to enact additional regulation, even lobbying him at the recent White House congressional holiday ball.
Rick Kessler, vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an advocacy group formed after three people were killed by a 1999 pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., called the measure modest, but he nonetheless welcomed any strengthening of rules from a Republican-controlled House that has been wary of new regulation.
The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act easily passed the often bitterly divided House, in large part because of high-profile incidents that have affected the districts of members of both parties in the last few years. They include a pipeline explosion that killed five in Allentown, Pa., and pipeline ruptures that spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and Yellowstone River in Montana.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), citing a 20,000-barrel oil pipeline spill in a tributary of the Kalamazoo River just outside his district, said, "The spill forced dozens of families out of their homes, in many cases permanently, and caused extensive environmental damage to a waterway many residents enjoyed for fishing and canoeing."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on the House floor on Monday: "During the last year and a half, a series of tragic failures has made it clear that we need stronger pipeline safety laws."
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees pipeline safety, said the bill "strengthens current laws, fills the gaps in existing laws where necessary, and provides the regulatory certainty necessary for industry to make investments and create American jobs.''
In response to the San Bruno blast, the bill requires pipeline operators to confirm, through records or testing, the maximum safe operating pressure of older untested pipelines in populated areas.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco), who has pushed for tougher pipeline safety rules, said the bill, "puts in place long overdue safety improvements.’’
-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Pacific Gas & Electric utility inspectors look at the resulting crater a day after a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people, injuring dozens and destroying 38 homes. The broken pipe sits in the middle of the street where it landed about 100 feet from the blast hole. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times