In safety review, 85 percent of pipeline operators are cited
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and Jeff Nesmith

Austin American-Statesman
Friday, July 26, 2002

Federal pipeline regulators conducting congressionally mandated inspections of the nation's largest hazardous-liquid pipelines have cited 85 percent of the pipeline companies for safety violations.

The Office of Pipeline Safety conducted the "integrity management" reviews under a federal program requiring pipeline operators to periodically pressure- test or internally inspect pipelines near populated areas, environmentally sensitive areas and navigable waterways.

In a series of articles on pipeline safety last year, the Austin American- Statesman revealed that many pipelines have gone decades without pressure testing or other examinations for structural integrity. A corroded natural gas pipeline that exploded in the New Mexico desert two years ago, killing 12 people, had not been subjected to internal inspections in nearly 50 years.

The newspaper series also pointed out that the pipeline office, which had 55 inspectors and jurisdiction over the safety of 2 million miles of pipelines, had failed to respond to numerous recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent oversight agency.

That has changed, the Office of Pipeline Safety reported in the first issue of an internal newsletter published by the Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration.

For the first time in 12 years, the NTSB has removed the pipeline safety office from its "Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements."

"This took tremendous effort by (the) Office of Pipeline Safety," said Research and Special Program Administrator Ellen Engleman.

In recent months, the pipeline safety office also has established new rules dealing with corrosion, spill reporting, repair procedures and other matters.

And on Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved a pipeline reform bill that, for the first time, enjoys broad -- though not unanimous -- support among safety activists and industry officials.

The measure must be reconciled with a bill passed by the Senate. Both bills would require the pipeline safety office to extend its integrity assessments to natural gas pipelines.

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said that in a nationwide sweep that concluded in April, the agency inspected all companies that operate more than 500 miles of pipeline. The review involved 66 companies and 70,000 miles of pipe.

About half of the enforcement actions involve paperwork and other minor errors, and about half are more substantive violations, James Mitchell, the spokesman, estimated.

All have been cited under a strategy of forcing operators to take formal steps to show compliance.

"We want operators to know they can't game the system," Mitchell said.

Despite the high rate of enforcement actions, Mitchell said the department is generally pleased with the industry's progress.

Modest step forward'

Members of a House-Senate conference will now attempt to reconcile differences between the House bill and a Senate version, introduced by Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., and passed last year.

The House measure contains a provision to protect pipeline company whistle- blowers and a section that provides technical assistance grants of up to $50,000 to communities and local pipeline safety organizations.

It does not include a public "right to know" provision that would have required companies to notify local communities of safety violations.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, an opponent of a plan by Longhorn Partners Pipeline LP to convert an idle crude oil line in Texas into a gasoline line, gave the House-passed bill a lukewarm appraisal.

"This bill represents a modest step forward," Doggett said. "For those forced to live in neighborhoods cut by the Longhorn pipeline or to drink water that flows beneath it, we must insist that the Office of Pipeline Safety act as a vigilant public watchdog, not an industry lapdog. One can hope this bill will bring better regulation and public accountability since it is inconceivable that it could get any worse."

Passage draws praise

Safety advocates praised the House bill almost as much for what it did not do as for what it did.

An earlier version, introduced by House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, would have allowed the pipeline office to override federal environmental regulations in order to expedite pipeline construction permit approvals. That provision disappeared from the final bill.

"The bipartisan House pipeline safety bill has been slow in coming and is limited in scope," said Lois Epstein, an engineer with the Alaska environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper and a member of the safety board's technical advisory committee on oil pipelines.

"Nevertheless, it's a relief to have some of the many deficiencies in the pipeline safety statute resolved, including enforcement deficiencies and the lack of whistle-blower protections," she added.

Industry officials praised the House legislation.

"The oil pipeline industry applauds the House's efforts in passing this bipartisan bill that will strengthen federal oversight, increase public confidence and help ensure the safety and security of America's vast network of pipelines," said Ben Cooper, executive director of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.

"Pipeline companies understand that oversight is a cornerstone to building and maintaining public confidence," he added, "and this confidence is a prerequisite for operating, upgrading and expanding America's pipelines to meet the nation's growing energy needs."

Mitchell said the Transportation Department is pleased with the House-passed bill.

"Reauthorization is essential to raise the public's confidence in the pipeline safety program," Mitchell said. "Commercial and residential energy demands are growing; urban centers are expanding and moving closer to rural pipelines; and our national defense demands a reliable energy supply.

"Passage of the House legislation, along with a Senate-passed measure, makes likely we'll have final action this year." Original Story

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