As tens of thousands of barrels of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico every day, legislators turned their attention toward ensuring that what happened off the Gulf Coast doesn't occur somewhere inside the United States.
As tens of thousands of barrels of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico every day, legislators on Thursday turned their attention toward ensuring that what happened off the Gulf Coast doesn't occur somewhere inside the United States.
During an afternoon hearing, the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security Subcommittee discussed how the federal government could improve pipeline safety as it anticipates reauthorizing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The agency, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of U.S. pipelines, expires in September.
"The ongoing Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf is an unfortunate wake-up call not only to oil production safety, but to the safety of the Nation’s vast oil and gas pipeline system," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
Three thousand companies operate over 2.5 million miles of pipeline carrying flammable and dangerous fuels , such as natural gas and diesel, across the United States to the nation's homes and businesses, according to PHMSA.
While the number of pipeline incidents has declined by 50 percent over the past two decades, accidents still happen. Fifty-eight people have been killed, 225 people have been injured, and $900 million in property damage has occurred since November 2006, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust , a watchdog group. And in just the past month alone, a natural gas pipeline exploded in Texas and two oil pipeline spills occurred in Alaska and Utah, noted Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).
Despite these incidents, PHMSA Administrator Cynthia L. Quarterman told legislators her office within the Department of Transportation has made significant strides toward ensuring the safety of the nation's pipeline systems.
Under the Pipes Act of 2006, Congress empowered the PHMSA to aggressively regulate companies responsible for operating the nation's pipelines. Since then, Quartman explained, the agency has increased its inspection staff and mandated gas distribution pipeline operators implement an integrity management plan that requires they install excess flow valves, which cut off gas to a house when a line breaks, in new and replaced service lines for single family homes when feasible.
There was unanimous consensus across the panel that the federally-mandated 811, or Call Before You Dig, program was necessary to avoid further excavation accidents where projects that require digging accidentally rupture underground pipelines. Excavation projects, typically when homeowners or contractors break ground on private property, are a leading cause of pipeline accidents involving death or injury, said Quarterman.
According to the program's Web site, even homeowners building a deck should call the number to identify any utility lines running underneath their property and have them marked before breaking ground.
"Since the Call 811 campaign was launched, there has been approximately a 40 percent reduction in safety-related incidents," said Rocco D’Alessandro, executive vice president of operations for Nicor Gas.
D'Alessandro, Weimar, and Tim Felt, president and chief executive officer for the Colonial Pipeline Company, all called for PHMSA and Congress to compel states to reduce the exemptions to the 811 campaign and penalize violators.
"Many states have exemptions to their damage prevention 'one call' rules for a variety of stakeholders including municipalities, state transportation departments, railroads, farmers, and property owners," Weimar said in his statement for the record. "We believe such exemptions, except in cases of emergencies, are unwarranted for municipalities, state transportations departments, and the railroads, and urge both Congress and PHMSA to make it clear that these types of exemptions are not acceptable in an effective damage prevention program."
Weimar also called on Congress to mandate pipeline operators to extend installation of excess flow valves to multi-family and commercial properties when appropriate.
D'Alessandro, however, believes the single-family home requirement is enough.
"Due to the inherent uncertainties and complexities associated with service lines to multiplefamily dwellings, commercial and industrial customers, however, it is inadvisable to attempt mandatory nation-wide installation of EFVs beyond the single-family residential class," he said in his statement.
♦ Photo by jakesmome/Flickr