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Step up pipeline safety, Senate panel told

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite legislation signed last year, lawmakers and regulators need to further step up their actions to improve the safety of the nation's more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas and hazardous materials pipelines, a U.S. Senate committee was told Monday during a field hearing in Charleston.

Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the hearing for an update on pipeline safety issues in the wake of last month's explosion and fire at a NiSource natural gas transmission line in Sissonville.

Rick Kessler, president of a citizen group called the Pipeline Safety Trust, told the committee that Monday's hearing was just the latest in a long line of such events following previous pipeline accidents.

"With continuing major failures of pipelines, such as the one in Sissonville, West Virginia, that brings us here today, we question whether our message is being heard," said Kessler, whose group was formed following a fatal pipeline 1999 explosion in Bellingham, Wash. "It is our sincere desire not to be back in front of this committee again in the future saying the same things after yet another tragedy."

Rockefeller praised action of new legislation passed by Congress in 2011 and signed by President Obama in January 2012, but said that House Republicans "demanded watered-down provisions for an agreement to move forward" with the bill.

"It was a tough fight to get pipeline safety legislation signed into law," Rockefeller said. "However, it's important that we continue to provide rigorous oversight of the industry to determine whether serious gaps still exist in our safety requirements."

In Monday's hearing, held at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. District Courthouse, Rockefeller invited regulators, federal investigators, industry and government auditors. Rockefeller was the only committee member who attended. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is not a member of the panel, but took part in the hearing.

Sissonville resident Sue Bonham led off the hearing, describing the Dec. 11 explosion of a 20-inch-diameter natural gas transmission line that injured several people, destroyed several homes and caused a fire that engulfed and damaged a large section of Interstate 77 north of Charleston.

"I witnessed the earth being scorched, my home burning and melting, everything was blistering or exploding, my step-daughter's home [next door] imploding into ashes, and hearing the continuing roar of the explosion," Bonham said. "I looked into the sky and wondered if this was simply the end of the world."

So far, National Transportation Safety Board inspectors have found that the more than 45-year-old pipeline that blew up had severely corroded, was not designed to be inspected by modern "pigging" devices, and wasn't equipped with automatic or remote shutoff valves that could have more quickly cut off the flow of gas fueling the Sissonville fire.

Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said her agency is well on the way toward implementing provisions of the latest federal pipeline safety law.

"The act has given us important tools and authority that we need to help us achieve our mission," Quarterman said.

But NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman explained that her agency has recommended actions that go beyond what's mandated by the new law. NTSB, for example, wants all pipelines to be configured to allow for in-line "pigging" inspections. The NTSB also has recommended that all pipelines located in "high consequence areas" -- where people, property or the environment could be seriously damaged by accidents -- be equipped with automatic or remote shutoff valves.

Kessler said that his group supports the NTSB proposals.

"For years we have talked about the need for more miles of pipelines to be inspected by smart pigs," Kessler told lawmakers. "We have pleaded for clear standards for leak detection, requirements for the placement of automatic shutoff valves, closing the loopholes that allow a growing mileage of pipelines to remain unregulated, and for better information to be available so innocent people will know if they live near a large pipeline and whether that pipeline is maintained and inspected in a way to ensure their safety."

Testimony during Monday's hearing revealed that the pipeline that exploded in Sissonville had not been classified as being located in a "high consequence" area, even though two nearby pipelines were classified that way. Under existing federal rules, only pipelines in such areas are mandated to even be considered for automatic or remote shutoff valves.

Jimmy Staton, executive vice president of NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage, said his company is replacing aging pipelines, expanding in-line inspection capabilities, and making a variety of other improvements as part of a $2 billion, five-year program to increase safety and service reliability.

"I fully believe industry is responsive," Staton said. "We are responsive above and beyond the requirements."

But Staton told the committee that the Sissonville line that blew up would pose a "challenge" for installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves, because it has so many connections to other pipelines that complicate the use of such equipment.

Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, testified that her agency's examination of the issue showed that automatic and remote shutoffs should be considered "on a case-by-case basis" because of a variety of advantages and disadvantages "specific to a unique valve location."

But Kessler, of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said that industry lobbyists have opposed mandating that pipeline operators study the use of automatic or remote shutoff valves on all of their lines, and then making the results of such studies -- including the decision of whether or not to install the equipment -- available to the public.

"It's really starting to ring a bit hollow" for the industry to fight such a requirement, Kessler said. "Somehow we find it acceptable that an industry can use 1960s technology in 2013."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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