U.S., Pa. measures address pipeline safety

    A bill requiring tougher pipeline safety regulations has been approved by the U.S. Senate and now awaits President Barack Obama’s signature.

    Safety advocates say the bill represents modest gains in pipeline safety. But it will not do much to prevent another gas line explosion like the one that killed five people in Allentown, Pa., last winter.

    “The problems that led to the tragedy in Allentown were old cast-iron pipelines, and there’s thousands of miles of those on the East Coast,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust. “All this bill does is ask the Department of Transportation to continue to track how many miles of those there are in different states.”

    It does not, Weimer said, require companies to start replacing those pipes or ask state regulators to work with companies to come up with funding to cover the cost of that replacement.

    The bill doubles the maximum fine for safety violations and adds penalties for obstructing safety investigations.

    It also requires transmission pipelines to have remote control or automatic shutoff valves. That safety measure was recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board after a deadly Edison, N.J., gas pipeline explosion in 1994. Gas flowed for hours before it could be shut off, said Rick Kessler, also of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

    “We shut our TVs off, close our garage doors with remote controls,” Kessler said. “It’s amazing we’ve had to wait this long to get this requirement on pipelines.”

    Kessler said he had hoped the bill would force the federal government to oversee natural gas gathering lines–the pipes that connect individual natural gas wells to transmission lines–but it stopped short. Instead, it asks the federal Department of Transportation to study whether better regulation is needed.

    States generally oversee safety inspections for these pipes, which, like all natural gas lines, can leak or cause explosions. In Pennsylvania, oversight has not been delegated, so no one is inspecting the pipelines.

    A bill heading to the Pennsylvania House for a final vote would give regulatory authority to the state’s Public Utility Commission, said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

    “The legislation would give us the authority to begin the safety inspection of these lines,” Kocher said. “The operators are doing this and we want to be sure it’s being done in accordance with state and federal regulations.”

    Pennsylvania is one of only two natural-gas producing states where no one has the authority to oversee gathering lines.

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