Rand Paul blocks pipeline-safety bill, frustrating Californians
A fight has erupted in the Senate over pipeline-safety legislation growing out of last year's deadly pipeline explosion in Northern California, with California’s senators calling on Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to stop blocking a Senate vote on a bill that passed out of committee with bipartisan support.
The usually regulatory-wary Paul said Wednesday that he doesn’t think the bill is strong enough.
He called for it to include National Transportation Safety Board recommendations made in response to the pipeline blast in San Bruno, near San Francisco, that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
The recommendations include requiring automatic and remote-controlled shutoff valves on existing pipelines in heavily populated areas, a response to the nearly 95 minutes it took utility workers to manually shut off gas spewing from the San Bruno blast. That requirement has faced industry opposition.
The NTSB also called for a type of testing of older pipelines that it said probably would have revealed problems in the San Bruno pipeline.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), whose district includes San Bruno, said Paul should seek to strengthen the bill on the Senate floor rather than hold it up.
"I would endorse his efforts, if they're genuine,'' she said in an interview outside the House chamber. "I've introduced all these bills on the House side in an effort to try and make real the NTSB recommendations, and I haven't gotten one call from his office. But I welcome his call."
Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said he hopes Paul will take a leadership role in pushing for adoption of the NTSB recommendations.
"We agree with him that the current bills in the House and Senate do not go far enough," Weimer said in an email to The Times. "Removing the grandfathering clause that allows the oldest pipes to avoid pressure tests, requiring automated valves on existing pipelines in populated areas, and setting clear metrics for how state and federal regulators assess the adequacy of pipeline company programs would be a huge step forward for pipeline safety.''
House and Senate committees have drafted bills that would boost fines for safety violations, increase the number of federal safety inspectors and require automatic and remote-controlled shutoff valves on new gas pipelines, among other things. The measures await votes in their chambers.
Pipeline safety legislation has drawn interest from members of Congress from both parties due to other pipeline incidents, including two earlier this year -- a pipeline explosion that killed five people in Allentown, Pa., and a pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana. Another pipeline spill occurred in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan last year.
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, sent a letter to Paul earlier this week asking him to cease blocking Senate consideration of the bill, contending it would help "prevent more communities from suffering the fate of San Bruno.''
Boxer and Feinstein recently wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urging him to implement the NTSB recommendations. They offered to meet with Paul.
Paul, who met with NTSB investigators on Wednesday, said in a statement afterward: "The pipeline legislation at hand was written months before the NTSB report was released -- yet the bill authors went ahead without the NTSB’s recommendations, creating regulations that do not address a major issue in pipeline safety.''
A Paul aide said his office is preparing a response to the California senators' invitation for a meeting.
--Richard Simon reporting from Washington
Photo: Fire roars through San Bruno, Calif., last year after a deadly pipeline explosion. Credit: Associated Press