June 2019, Vol. 246, No. 6


First Pipeline Safety Bill Introduced

Two Massachusetts senators, one of them a Democratic presidential candidate, have introduced the first pipeline safety bill as Congress works to put together legislation reauthorizing the Pipeline Safety Act, which expires on Sept. 30. 

Additionally, other bills will be introduced in the next few months, and the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, named for the young man who died in the Merrimack Valley distribution line explosion in September 2018, will probably be subsumed into a broader bill. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is one of the sponsors of the Rondon bill (S. 1097), which focuses exclusively on distribution line safety and does not lap over to transmission pipelines. But some of the bill’s provision could be adapted to interstate pipelines as Congress puts together what will be an “omnibus” pipeline bill. 

However, new safety mandates are likely to be minimal, whether distribution or transmission focused, given many mandates in the 2011 and 2016 bills have never been implemented by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). 

One provision in the bill applies to both intrastate and interstate pipelines: an increase in the federal civil penalty limit from $200,000 to $20 million per day and from $2 million to $200 million for a related series of violations. 

The provision in Rondon, which have the best chance to making it into whatever broader pipeline bill emerges, according to Annie Cook with Troutman Sanders Pipeline Safety Practice Group, besides the civil penalty provisions, are a requirement to study and report on whether PHMSA should require operators to maintain pipeline safety management systems in accordance with industry standard RP 1173. It is also possibly additional requirements associated with management of change or overpressure protection will be implemented.

Other pipeline issues may come up, as was the case in the latest House hearings in the Energy & Commerce Committee on May 1. Besides ticking off the delayed rulemakings from the 2011 and 2016 laws and PHMSA’s failure to implement recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) brought up a report issued that day by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighting gaps in the security measures used by transmission pipelines and overseen by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). 

“On a bipartisan basis, we invited TSA to testify on its Pipeline Security Program, which the Government Accountability Office has criticized for having ‘significant weaknesses.’ I’m concerned that TSA lacks the resources, expertise in energy delivery systems and, frankly, commitment, to keep up its obligations under the law.”

Jake Rubin, an American Gas Association spokesman, said the process for the for pipeline safety reauthorization was in the early going.

“Several of the suggestions made by Senator Markey and Congresswoman Trahan are in line with the industry’s continued focus on opportunities to enhance safety and echo interim recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),” he said.

The Merrimack explosion was caused by a loss of pressure in a Columbia Gas line that was being abandoned. The cast-iron, low-pressure distribution system was installed in the early 1900s and had been partially improved with both steel and plastic pipe upgrades since the 1950s. Some of the Rondon provisions stem from NTSB recommendations post-Merrimack.

A second, more recent NTSB report on a 2016 gas explosion accident gives additional impetus to that bill. Issued in April, the second report covers a Maryland explosion in an apartment building which resulted in seven deaths.

“The NTSB’s investigation highlighted serious flaws in the inspection of service regulators,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “This tragic event could have been avoided if the necessary checks were done to ensure the safety of the building’s occupants.” 

NTSB investigators concluded that without a requirement for technicians to verify the connection of vent lines for indoor mercury service regulators, such vent lines could inadvertently be left open following service work.  

However, had methane detectors been installed in the building, an alarm would have alerted residents to a gas release and reduced the potential and consequences of a natural gas explosion. The gas line belonged to Washington Gas. P&GJ

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