Clinton wants to boost pipeline safety, stiffen penalties

Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A proposal by President Clinton would boost safety requirements for pipeline operators, stiffen penalties for violators and give the public more information about pipeline safety and accidents.

The proposal, obtained by The Associated Press on Monday, also would open the door for a greater state role in regulating pipelines, both through analyzing new construction of pipes and in investigating pipeline accidents.

''The improvements in this bill assure that pipeline operators are more accountable to the public for the risks they impose,'' Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said in a letter accompanying a draft of the proposal.

Vice President Al Gore was expected to formally announce the proposal Tuesday.

The proposal creates new requirements for pipeline operators in densely populated regions and in environmentally sensitive areas. Operators would have to conduct internal inspections or ''another equally protective method'' to periodically determine the strength of lines, and then act to address any flaws.

Operators would need to share maps, manuals and emergency response plans with local communities to better prepare for emergencies. Information about pipeline accidents and safety-related issues would be made available to the public.

Penalties would be increased. Companies that overpressurize a pipeline, causing the line to fail, could face a fine of $500,000, rather than the $25,000 fine under current law.

The proposal also allows Secretary Slater to make agreements with states to give them more oversight of pipelines. Along with pre-construction and post-accident roles, Slater could choose to give states much broader authority, including the ability of states to conduct routine inspections.

Details of the administration's plan came as the Bellingham, Wash., parents of two children who died following a June 1999 pipeline leak and subsequent fire called for tougher regulation of the pipeline industry.

''This industry lies, they're arrogant, and they're outrageous,'' said Frank King, whose 10-year-old son, Wade, died in an explosion following the leak last June 10. ''They need to be put under control.''

Katherine Dalen spoke of her son, Steven Tsiorvas, ''who will be forever 10.''

She recounted driving home from the shopping mall, seeing the smoke in the sky and thinking, ''Please don't let that be my home.''

''I saw his charred pants lying in my yard, I saw his melted shoes lying in my yard, and I knew my baby was in trouble,'' Dalen said.

The parents spoke at a pipeline safety conference in the nation's capital sponsored by groups seeking tougher enforcement of pipeline safety.

Conference participants said bills sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Jack Metcalf, R-Wash. -- and co-authored by the entire Washington state delegation -- are the best hope for safety improvements in the short term.

''The stars are actually lining up as far as something happening with pipeline safety this year,'' said Carl Weimer, co-founder of the pipeline watchdog group SAFE Bellingham.

But lawmakers said bill passage will not be easy. Metcalf said he is having a hard time getting colleagues interested in the buried pipelines.

''The phrase out of sight, out of mind, certainly applies when pipelines are concerned,'' he told conference attendees in a speech.

Murray said in a speech prepared for delivery Tuesday that there are some positive signs. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who serves on the crucial Commerce Committee, has signed up as a bill co-author. The Commerce Committee is likely to hold a hearing on the Murray bill in early May.

But Murray also cautioned that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has not placed the bill among 50 high-priority items he hopes the Senate will pass before a recess in August.

''Unfortunately, the Senate leadership has not expressed a lot of interest in pipeline safety,'' she said in the speech.

The conference, which began Sunday, ends Tuesday.

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