Tomblin recycles proposal to hike pipeline safety fines

February 14, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal last night to increase West Virginia’s civil penalties for pipeline safety violations seems like a no-brainer, given that the state’s current fines are a maximum of just $1,000 per violation per day — far less than the federal government’s fines of up to $200,000 per day.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin portrayed this proposal as a response to last December’s huge natural gas explosion and fire on a NiSource transmission line out in Sissonville:

Just a few months ago, many of us watched in shock when flames ripped through a community near Sissonville leaving houses leveled and a part of our highway charred when a major pipeline exploded. It was a true blessing no one was injured or killed. We have learned from that explosion and the investigation that followed, that West Virginia’s pipeline safety statutes are outdated-with weak penalties and enforcement measures. In fact, West Virginia is currently out of compliance with federal guidelines.

Tonight, I am proposing legislation to bring our State into federal compliance. I propose a maximum penalty of up to $200,000 per violation, per day. It is my hope by increasing penalties, we will meet federal standards and ensure overall public safety.

But what’s strange here is that, as we reported in today’s Gazette, this problem isn’t new, and neither is the proposal for solving it. Just last year, Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, proposed a bill aimed at increasing the state Public Service Commission’s penalties for pipeline safety violations. And that legislation made it clear:

The purpose of this bill is to raise the civil penalties that the Public Service Commission can impose for violations of Gas Pipeline Safety Act from the existing $1,000 for each violation to $100,000 for each day of violation to a maximum of $1 million for any related series of violations. This change would mirror the federal regulations.

Interestingly, though, Sen. Kirkendoll’s bill — as it was originally proposed on Jan. 25, 2012 — would not have mirrored federal regulations. The original bill proposed to increase West Virginia’s maximum per-day, per-violation fine to $100,000. But as of Jan. 3, 2012, when President Obama signed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011, the federal fines increased to a maximum of $200,000.

The bill was amended to mirror that new law. It passed the state Senate, but died in the House of Delegates.

In fact, though, efforts to increase West Virginia’s civil penalties for pipeline violations date back to at least 2005, when this bill was introduced.

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