Pipeline budget boost gives OPS shot in the arm

Bellingham Herald
20 February 2003

SAFETY: Persistence from concerned citizens and area lawmakers seems to have paid off with proposed funding increase.

You heard it right - good news about pipeline safety. Congress approved a Bush administration proposal last week to increase the budget for the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, allowing the agency to hire as many as 19 new inspectors to watch over the nation's network of pipelines.

The budget allocated a 5 percent increase, bringing the funding to $67 million. That's a 15 percent increase from just two years ago, when the agency had just 55 inspectors to oversee the nation's 2.2 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines.

This funding could bring the number of inspectors to 98.

When the Olympic Pipe Line Co. rupture and explosion in Whatcom Falls Park killed three youths in 1999, there was not even an inspector for every state. Washington had to share one inspector with several other Western states. Following the explosion, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., worked to get a federal inspector stationed in Western Washington and state Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, fought tooth and nail to establish the state's own agency to police pipeline safety. The industry battled the move, saying it would create too much of a patchwork of regulation, but many more people hailed it as simply much-needed extra oversight.

There were times when we wondered if all the lobbying from local citizen groups, the families of the victims and even U.S. senators would ever really be heard in Washington, D.C. It seemed that many legislators just couldn't get excited about the topic. But persistence on all levels seems to have paid.

A big part of the problem with funding for the federal OPS is that it gets its money from the industry it oversees. Senators and representatives have been reluctant in the past to increase the bill for the oil and gas industry, which has a large lobby with a fat wallet.

At the time of the Whatcom Falls Park explosion, OPS was an oversight agency in name only. It was simply impossible for that few bodies to truly monitor that many miles of pipeline. At that time, though, there were also almost no rules on the books requiring them to do so. Many pipelines, like Olympic's, had not been inspected in the several decades since they had been installed.

Last fall, at the urging of Murray and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, Congress finally succeeded in passing a bill that requires nearly half of the nation's pipelines to be inspected within the next five years. The rest must be inspected within 10 years. Pipelines must be inspected every seven years after that. The bill is not as strong as it should be, but it is as strong as it could be to get it passed. There is still work to be done, primarily in creating requirements for companies to fix the problems encountered during the inspections.

This increased funding is a real shot in the arm for OPS and the safety of our communities and environment. It sends the first message from the highest office that pipeline safety is important.

Copyright Bellingham Herald
(Original Story no longer available online)

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