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.”
There was also coverage from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the State Journal, and Forbes.com, among others. Over at the Daily Mail, reporter Ry Rivard picked up an important piece of information that came out yesterday:
The natural gas pipeline that exploded last month near Sissonville was spared heightened safety scrutiny because of its size, the nation’s top pipeline regulator said Monday.
The 20-inch diameter transmission line that exploded was not in what federal regulators considered a “high consequence area,” even though two pipelines owned by the same company and within a stone’s throw of the exploded line were.
When the line exploded on Dec. 11, it destroyed three homes, damaged several others and scorched Interstate 77 — miraculously killing no one.
Because it was not “high consequence,” the exploded line did not have to be checked for corrosion using one important pipeline safety tool. The tool — known as a “smart pig” — travels through a pipeline to check the pipe for irregularities, including cracks and corrosion. The tool could perhaps have found that the exploded line had corroded in places to about a third of the thickness it ought to have been.
But one of the more telling moments yesterday came not during the formal committee hearing, but in a brief press conference held beforehand by Sen. Rockefeller and NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. Sen. Rockefeller was talking about the importance of administrative agencies following up on safety mandates from lawmakers, and the key matter of members of Congress holding agencies’ to such mandates. But, Sen. Rockefeller worried aloud, it appears that all too often the White House Office of Management and Budget is blocking agency efforts, holding up, delaying or trying to scuttle important rules
Rockefeller noted that many political leaders — especially in West Virginia — love to complain about the regulatory efforts of agencies like EPA. What often gets lost, the senator said, is that regulations are important for protecting not only the environment, but worker health and public safety:
There’s a real worry on my part that the Office of Management and Budget, totally unknown to the American people. Totally unspeakable about by federal folks, because they can’t, is slowing all this process down, maybe anti-rules and regulations in some cases that could affect things like this from not happening again.
Of course, this isn’t a new idea … the folks at the Pump Handle blog frequently have written about OMB holding up vital worker protection regulations. And the Center for Progressive Reform has urged President Obama to reform the agency’s practices when he names a new regulatory director at OMB:
For the President, this could be a little-noticed appointment. But it may be one of the most important ones he makes, because the person he selects will hold enormous sway over the entire regulatory agenda of the President’s second term, cutting a wide swath across all the regulatory agencies of the federal government. Given the gridlock in Congress, the reality is that, in many areas, the best chance the President has to implement his vision of a government that protects Americans from environmental hazards, unsafe products and dangerous working conditions, is not to legislate, but to regulate aggressively in these areas. That means that the person he appoints to this job could have an enormous effect on the President’s legacy. He should choose carefully, therefore, thinking about the public interest, not the reaction of the business community over the short term.