Eliminating all safety exemptions could backfire, states warn

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, July 18 -- Eliminating all government agency exemptions as a condition for states to remain eligible for federal one-call and damage prevention grants would do more harm than good, a state pipeline regulator warned a US House Energy and Power Committee subcommittee on July 15.

Randall S. Knepper, the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission’s safety division director who testified on behalf of the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives, said that NAPSR members are concerned that eliminating the exemptions as the federal pipeline safety reauthorization bill proposes would undermine safety by denying states money to support their own programs.

“The grant funds, when doled out among the states, are not of sufficient level to provide an incentive to a state to attempt to force a one-size-fits-all scenario to the multitude of excavation scenarios,” Knepper said in written testimony submitted to the committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee.

“Eliminating these funds will result in less effort by the state in promoting use of the 811 number, in educating locators and excavators, and in carrying out educational efforts with other stakeholders to reduce excavation damage to pipelines and other infrastructure,” he continued. “This could actually increase the number of incidents, and result in lower overall levels of safety.”

Other witnesses called for elimination of the exemptions, however. US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Administrator Cynthia L. Quarterman said the interstate pipeline regulator supports the bill’s provision which prohibits any exemptions by states from underground damage one-call laws. “However, the states may have difficulties in immediately achieving these goals,” she said in her written testimony. “Therefore, we suggest that Congress take a phased approach to any funding restrictions to provide some time for states to remove exemptions.”

Leading accident cause
“While third-party damage (typically from mechanized excavation) accounts for only a small number of releases from liquid pipelines, failing to ‘call before you dig’ can have very serious consequences,” observed Andrew J. Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipelines who also testified on the American Petroleum Institute’s behalf. “It is the leading cause of pipeline accidents which kill or injure people.” S. 275, the US Senate’s version of this bill, removes exemptions for municipalities, states, and their contractors, and Section 3 of the bill before the House “would go a long way in protecting the public,” he said in his written statement.

Daniel B. Martin, the senior vice-president of pipeline safety in El Paso Corp.’s pipeline group who testified on the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America’s behalf, told the subcommittee that excavation accidents are most avoidable kind of pipeline incidents. “Requiring all excavators to ‘call before digging’ is critical to a successful damage prevention program, and therefore exemptions from participation, especially for large-volume excavators, make little sense,” he said in his written testimony.

Natural gas utilities also support eliminating one-call exemptions, according to Charles F. Dippo, vice-president of engineering services and system integrity at South Jersey Gas Co. who testified on the American Gas Association’s behalf.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) noted that the bill’s provisions also included requiring pipeline operators to report incidents to the National Response Center within 1 hr, use of automatic or remote shut-off valves, use of better leak detection technologies, and application of more highly enhanced inspection techniques and technologies. The measure also would substantially raise fines for pipeline operators who have major accidents, and increase the number of inspectors at PHMSA, he indicated.

Upton said that he intended to move the pipeline safety reauthorization bill through the subcommittee in the next few weeks and have it ready for the full committee when the House returns from its August recess.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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