Pipe Blast Could Spur Safety Bills


Tuesday, August 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — The deaths of 11 people from a New Mexico natural gas pipeline explosion may force Congress to pass long-stalled legislation to intensify inspections of underground pipelines, a lawmaker says.

Forty-two people were killed by natural gas pipeline accidents between 1986 and June 30, according to the Office of Pipeline Safety, an agency of the National Transportation Safety Board.

``It's galling to think that more tragedies could happen while these bills sit in committee,'' said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., a sponsor of one of the bills.

A man who died Monday in a Lubbock, Texas, hospital, was the 11th victim of Saturday's explosion of a buried natural gas pipeline near Carlsbad, N.M. Five children were among those killed when the pre-dawn explosion swept flames down the Pecos River's banks and through tents where two families were camping.

The daughter-in-law of the man who died Monday remained in critical condition in Lubbock. The woman's parents, husband and two children were among the dead.

The last major pipeline safety bill passed in 1996.

``This is the window of opportunity,'' Inslee said Monday. ``We need to pass out a comprehensive pipeline safety bill now, not wait until next session.''

A gasoline pipeline broke in June 1999 in Bellingham, Wash., and the ensuing fire killed three people. That accident led to an influx of proposed regulations and reports, but none has passed.

Inslee said he already has been promised a committee hearing on the issue and expects a pipeline safety bill to make it out of Congress this session.

``My concern is the type of bill that makes it out of Congress,'' he said. ``If it doesn't have any meat on its bones, then it's not worth it.''

Various versions of House and Senate pipeline safety legislation, including bills introduced by Inslee, Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would require more pipeline operator training and periodic pipeline testing. The Transportation Department does not mandate rechecks once pipes are in the ground.

Legislation also would increase penalties for unsafe pipelines, including cash fines and possible shutdown of a substandard pipe, and public disclosure of all pipe locations.

``No longer are these pipes buried underground only in remote locations, miles away from the nearest home or business,'' Franks said in a speech last month. ``In my home state, thousands of people live or work in immediate proximity to pipelines.''

The safety office has tried for six years to create a national pipeline map without completing the job.

``There are many things wrong with our pipeline system and many things that need to be fixed,'' Inslee said.

An inspector general's report in March criticized the Office of Pipeline Safety for failure to complete improved inspections required by a 1992 law of unusually sensitive and highly populated areas of the 325,000 miles of natural gas pipelines.

OPS was supposed to have completed the first step by 1994 but has not, the report said.

The outstanding congressional mandates all will be met before the end of the year, OPS said in its response to the report.

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The bills are H.R. 4849, H.R. 4749, and S.2438.

On the Net: Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

Office of Pipeline Safety: http://ops.dot.gov