Pipeline-safety bill rouses little praise
By Katherine Pfleger

Seattle Times
26 May, 2002

WASHINGTON _ Safety advocates, environmentalists and victims' families worry the cost of pipeline-safety legislation may be steep: greater environmental risks and less public disclosure about pipelines.

But Republicans and moderate Democrats who crafted a bill approved by a U.S. House transportation panel last week say their legislation is an important step toward securing the nation's 2.2 million miles of pipelines.

Pipeline-safety legislation has been a long time coming, with calls for action increasing after explosions in Bellingham in 1999 and Carlsbad, N.M., in 2000 took 12 lives.

Growing concerns after Sept. 11 prodded Congress into action, and lawmakers are considering several options to get a bill finished this year.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's bill compromised on previous sticking points, including new whistle-blower protections and requirements that natural-gas pipelines undergo inspections within 10 years, with regular checks every seven years after.

The bill

House Resolution 3609, the Pipeline Infrastructure Protection to Enhance Security and Safety Act, would do the following, among other things:

  • Require inspections of natural-gas pipelines in populated or sensitive areas within 10 years, with follow-up checks every seven years.
  • Provide new protections for whistle-blowers.
  • Streamline the environmental-permit process for routine pipeline repairs.
  • Increase the civil penalties for violations from $50,000 to $750,000 and establish criminal penalties for damages caused by terrorists.
  • Allow the secretary of transportation to prevent the release of sensitive information about pipelines if it would threaten national security.

It also would require pipeline companies to take preventative steps when security threats are discovered. The bill passed 55-13 in committee.

U.S. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, and Rick Larsen, D-Everett, voted for the bill. Though a freshman, Larsen was considered central in compromises reached in the legislation because his district includes Bellingham.

Yet Frank King, whose 10-year-old son was one of three fatalities in the Bellingham explosion, looks at Larsen with disappointment.

"Isn't there one politician back there that stands for something?" King asked. "You have to ask yourself one question to find out how good this legislation is: What about it would have prevented the accident in Bellingham from happening?"

Larsen acknowledges the bill needs more work but said he and other Democrats have made great strides working with the Republicans.

"There are many steps along the way where the bill can be improved or undermined, and I am going to keep working through this process," Larsen said. "Doing nothing on pipeline safety is not an option."

Some advocates, including environmentalists, were surprised at some of the things Larsen agreed to. That included his vote, along with eight other Democrats, that gives the federal Department of Transportation new authority to streamline environmental regulations involving routine pipeline maintenance.

Transportation committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, also attached language to the bill that would let the transportation secretary withhold from the public information that could make pipelines vulnerable to attacks.

Carl Weimer, executive director of SAFE Bellingham, worried the provision could lead the department to deny citizens information about pipelines' materials, testing and spills.

"It is very easy to say terrorist and anything in the same sentence and all of a sudden it drops off the table," he said.

Weimer wanted to see stronger community right-to-know provisions and strict financial liability for pipeline operators. "It's hard to believe our representatives knew what they were voting for," he said.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America is reluctantly supporting the bill, while the Association of Oil Pipe Lines said it looks forward to its quick passage.

Legislatively speaking, the bill has a ways to go. The House Energy and Commerce Committee must weigh in. The Senate approved its own pipeline-safety legislation last year.

Lawmakers from both chambers must negotiate their differences into a single bill for the president's signature.

Larsen said that as the bill moves forward, there will be room for better testing requirements and community-right-to-know measures.

"I will be the first to say this is an imperfect bill," he said. "We are going to get to a place, by the time this is done, that we are going to have very strong pipeline-safety bill in this country."

Copyright c 2002 The Seattle Times Company
Original Story

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