US Senate follows House, approves pipeline safety bill

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 8 -- The US Senate passed an amended pipeline safety bill by voice vote on Dec. 7, following House passage of the measure 2 days ago on a similarly expedited basis. HR 5782 now heads to the White House, where President George W. Bush is expected to sign it.

The bill would authorize a 50% increase in the number of federal pipeline inspectors, give additional enforcement authority to the US Office of Pipeline Safety and states to prevent third-party excavation damage, and federally regulate low-stress oil pipelines and local gas distribution systems for the first time, according to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), one of the main sponsors earlier this year of the Senate's original pipeline safety bill.

But Lautenberg added that one of the bill's most significant features is its provision establishing the mandatory use of excess flow valves, which he helped to write.

"These important safety devices can shut off gas flow when a service line is ruptured, preventing a potential explosion. One lesson we learned after the 1994 gas explosion in Edison, NJ, is that technology must be used to shut off gas flow after a rupture," he explained.

Lautenberg said excess flow valves would be required in every new single-family residence or replacement line to a single-family residence under HR 5782.

He added that Thomas J. Barrett, who heads the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration within the US Department of Transportation, indicated that he intends to exempt operators of master meter and liquefied petroleum gas systems from the requirement, but only because excess flow valves have been shown to be ineffective on such systems.

Passage welcomed
Oil and gas trade associations and citizens' groups both welcomed the bill's passage through Congress.

"This legislation is a significant step in protecting natural gas distribution pipelines from damage by third-party excavators," said David N. Parker, president of the American Gas Association, which represents 200 local distribution companies.

Parker said HR 5782 contains provisions and financial incentives to encourage states to adopt excavation damage prevention programs containing the same elements which have been successful in Minnesota and Virginia's programs.

DOT safety statistics show that the number of serious incidents caused by third-party excavators hitting utility lines has more than doubled in the last 4 years, Parker said.

Lois Epstein, a senior engineer with Cook Inletkeeper, an Alaskan citizens' organization dedicated to protecting the region's watershed, human population, and wildlife, called HR 5782 "a strong bill that will move pipeline safety forward."

Referring to leaks in BP Alaska's oil-gathering operations at Prudhoe Bay, which eventually led to shutdowns of several portions of the system this past summer, Epstein added, "Ironically, BP's corrosion problems this past year helped federal regulators improve pipeline safety overall."

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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