Congress Approves Pipeline Safety Bill after Years of Debate
White, Melissa, Nation's Cities Weekly
Cities' concerns about pipeline safety were addressed last week as Congress left town when the House and Senate approved the NLC--supported Pipeline Safety Improvement Act (HR 3609) to strengthen the nation's pipeline safety laws. President Bush is expected to sign the bill in the coming weeks.
HR 3609 reauthorizes the nation's pipeline safety program through 2006. It mandates periodic inspections of all pipelines, increases civil penalties for violations, strengthens operator qualifications, expands protections for whistle-blowers and authorizes new funding for research and technology programs.
Additionally, HR 3609 authorizes $1 million per year for Community Information Grants. The grants, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), would be allocated to localities and non-profit groups that want to participate in pipeline safety activities. The bill also gives states increased oversight over pipeline safety operations, something states have been pushing for.
Momentum to overhaul the nation's pipeline safety laws increased dramatically after two fatal accidents in one year that killed 15 people. In 1999 in Bellingham, Wash., a liquid gasoline pipeline leaked into a creek and ignited, killing three people, including two young boys. In March 2000, in Carlsbad, N.M., 12 people were killed when a natural gas pipeline exploded near their campsite.
The Senate moved quickly to pass legislation to strengthen the perceived lax oversight of the Research and Special Programs Administration, a part of USDOT. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Commerce Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) led the battle to pass the legislation in early 2001. However, the House did not act on its version of the bill until this summer. A final agreement was reached on the legislation in September.
One area left out of the bill is the so-called "right-to-know" provision concerning guidelines for companies on how much information should be made public. After the events of September 11, 2001, security concerns arose over the public release of information about the nation's pipeline network. No compromise was reached, so Congress plans to revisit the issue. …