Pipeline safety flows on openness

Bellingham Herald
15 February 2003

PUBLIC SAFETY: Open government demands that fuel-pipeline routes should be available for all to see.

Federal agencies' plans to limit public access to data about fuel pipelines poses more of a risk to public safety than the possibility of terrorists tapping into the information.

In the name of homeland security, agencies are seeking to recall information that was formerly public: such as maps of fuel-pipeline routes. Not only is the retroactive decision ineffective, it's harmful to the public as an informed citizenry.

People have a right to know the exact locations of pipeline routes and the locations of dents and gouges found during inspections. For example, someone buying a home has a right to know if the home is near a pipeline. A person with a pipeline on his or her property would know from the deed, but a neighbor who is certainly in the risk zone would not necessarily know.

Under a new plan, pipeline information would be available on a Web site only for cities and counties with passwords. Would that mean that counties and cities could not share the maps at public meetings? For example, the Whatcom County Council had many hearings on pipeline corridors - would those have to be held in secret?

That certainly seems unfair to the people who might have a pipeline running through their back yards.

Knowledge is power. And making that power available to people who seek to do harm is a risky prospect, but we live in a free and open society and that makes us vulnerable. It also makes us great because it empowers our citizens to challenge policies and ask questions. So many of our laws, from the ones that require government meetings and court hearings to be open to the public, to the ones that make public information about diseases and toxic releases exist because our country believes in government in the open. This is really no different.

Public health and safety information should be available to anyone who wants to look at it. Without that, what kind of watchdogs can we be?

It's naive to think that concealing this information is going to put it out of the hands of terrorists. What little we actually know about terrorists tells us that they can be patient and they can be thorough. If they are intent on blowing up a pipeline, they will find a way to get the maps they need. You can figure out many pipeline routes simply by walking them and observing the signs and markers that designate their routes. Furthermore, we can't hide the locations of nuclear plants, ferries, dams, train tracks, tall buildings, oil refineries or airports or any other number of other potential targets attractive because blowing them up would cause large-scale death and destruction.

When it comes to pipeline safety, this nation is only now slowly awakening to the lack of requirements on this crucial infrastructure.

There is a lack of inspectors, a lack of clear rules about when damaged pipelines have to be fixed and until recently, a lack of regulation requiring any inspections at all. That tide is just beginning to turn, largely because of grass-roots efforts from this community in the wake of the June 1999 Olympic Pipe Line Co. explosion that claimed three young lives in Whatcom Falls Park. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and state Rep. Kelli Linville have all spearheaded successful efforts to improve pipeline safety and their colleagues have noticed.

Pipelines are a crucial part of our infrastructure and, when operated responsibly, the safest way to transport petroleum and natural gas products. That doesn't mean we can afford to be forced into ignorance now that the public is finally beginning to understand their potential hazards.

Copyright Bellingham Herald
(Original Story no longer available online)

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