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Protect public from oil pipelines

Posted By Ellen Ratner On 10/04/2010 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

We tend to think of infrastructure as bridges and roads. Now in the 21st century we think of fiber optics. Rarely do we think of pipelines, and if we do we conjure up images of caribou keeping warm in winter near the Alaska pipeline. There is another pipeline story. This week the subject of pipeline safety was the focus of a hearing in the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation.

In the busyness of the end of summer, few people paid attention to the pipeline accident on Sept. 9 in San Bruno, Calif. The blast killed seven people, injured many more and destroyed 37 homes. As Mayor Jim Ruane of San Bruno testified, a 44-year-old mother and her daughter died, leaving behind a father. Another daughter, a 20-year-old woman who was visiting her boyfriend during a break from work, died and her boyfriend remains in the hospital with critical burn injuries.

This is not the first time this has happened. Campers were killed after pitching their tents on an unknown pipeline that blew up. This summer a million gallons of oil spilled into a waterway in Michigan. Committee Chairman Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., stated that back in 1994 a natural gas pipeline exploded and destroyed 14 apartment buildings in Edison, N.J.

The senators heard testimony from the Pipeline Safety Trust, a group born out of the 1999 Olympic pipeline tragedy in Washington state. It left three young people dead and cost millions of dollars to the local economy. The president of the Pipeline Safety Trust has said that he has been to Congress before, and they rightly questioned if their message was being heard.

The Pipeline Safety Trust has suggested some basics, and Congress can’t seem to get it together to make sure that oversight of this kind of infrastructure takes place. What they ask is reasonable. If we saw these kinds of blow-ups in another country, we would wonder if there was graft or greed that was preventing action by the government. This is not a case of graft but it might be lobbying (and greed) by the oil and gas companies.

The trust has some basic recommendations, and it does not seem to be rocket or pipeline science to make sure that these requirements are enacted into law.

Some of what they suggest is obvious but might actually cost some money. As we have seen with the BP oil spill, all a company needs is one big accident to cost it time, money and reputation.

One clear recommendation is to require a remote or automatic shut-off valve for gas transmission pipelines and emergency flow-restriction devices on hazardous liquid pipelines. Apparently, the only way that it was possible to shut off the pipeline in San Bruno was to find someone with a key to the valve and operate it manually. What, asks the Pipeline Safety Trust, would happen in an earthquake?

Congress did require a survey to assess the effectiveness of emergency flow devices, but rules were never followed up on and, according to testimony of the Pipeline Trust, the government management agencies left it up to the pipeline operators!

They also recommend that they use a technology for inspection of the pipelines called “smart pigs.” Unfortunately, the older pipes can’t accommodate these “smart pigs” without upgrading parts of the pipelines. This is costly, and the companies have fought it with rigorous lobbying. There is also a no-brainer recommendation for implementing enhanced standards for leak detection in hazardous liquid pipelines. Incredibly, there are no performance standards for leak detection.

There are actually exemptions to the “one call rule” of call before you dig. It means that not everyone has to call before digging and construction. I can just imagine the lobbying that allowed those exemptions.

Sens. Lautenberg and Rockefeller have put forth legislation to put some teeth into enforcement. Stopping the flow of lobbying money should be paramount. Then maybe oil, gas and other pipelines can get the equipment they need to protect the public.


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