WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate has unanimously passed a bill to improve pipeline safety by increasing fines, boosting state oversight and requiring pipeline operators to disclose more information about the pipes.
The bill, by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also increases funding for the federal agency that oversees pipelines and gives ''whistleblower'' protections to pipeline workers who reveal safety problems.
''People in communities through which pipelines go (will) know what is going on and have some say,'' said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., a bill co-author.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., another co-author, said Thursday ''there is no doubt'' an Aug. 19 natural gas pipeline explosion in Carlsbad, N.M. -- which left 12 dead -- created momentum to pass the bill this year.
The bill would require pipeline operators for the first time to submit detailed plans to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety showing that the operators had conducted tests and inspections and taken other steps to make the lines safe.
The operators also would be required to show the Department of Transportation that they have trained the employees operating the pipelines. Fines for safety violations would be increased from $500,000 to $1 million.
Murray, Gorton and McCain have been pushing tougher pipeline safety legislation after a Bellingham, Wash., gasoline pipeline rupture and explosion last year left three people dead.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved McCain's bill in June, but the measure stalled for weeks, largely due to criticisms from natural gas industry officials, Murray said.
She said industry officials realized they had a public relations problem following the New Mexico disaster and relented on some of their concerns.
But an industry official said the accident did not play a role.
Gay Friedmann, senior vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said it took time for all the parties involved in talks over the bill to reach an agreement.
''We think it's a tough bill,'' she said.
But critics said penalties in the bill are still too weak and that the Office of Pipeline Safety -- with a poor track record -- should not be left to enforce the penalties.
''Congress is just about business as usual,'' said Anne Bricklin of Fuel Safe Washington in Seattle. ''They're basically going to try to trick the public into thinking pipeline safety is going on -- we're not going to let them get away with it.''
Other provisions of the bill would:
--require operators to report spills of 5 gallons or more, rather than the current requirement of more than 200 gallons.
--allow states -- with Office of Pipeline Safety permission -- to investigate pipeline accidents and examine new pipeline construction
--require operators to make maps, emergency response plans and spill incident reports available to the public.
Several House pipeline safety bills have been introduced, but House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., is crafting a new bill similar to McCain's version that a Transportation subcommittee is expected to take up as early as next week.
Bill sponsors say there is still time to gain final passage of a pipeline bill this year.
On the Net: congressional web site http://thomas.loc.gov/
Pipeline safety bill is S. 2438.
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