Larsen Helps Lead Passage of Bipartisan Bill to Improve Pipeline Safety

Dec 12, 2011

WASHINGTON—Rep. Rick Larsen, WA-02, today helped pass the “Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011.” Larsen, a member of the House Transportation Committee, helped write the 2002 Pipeline Safety Improvement Act and its 2006 revisions. He managed floor debate on the bill today, which ultimately passed with a unanimous voice vote.

“This bill is another important step in the right direction to improving the safety of pipelines across the nation,” Larsen said. “I worked to ensure that this bill would require enhanced testing of pipelines and mandate automatic shut-off valves on new and replaced pipelines. Tragic pipeline accidents like the 1999 explosion in Bellingham that took three lives must be prevented. I have been working on pipeline safety since coming to Congress in 2001. We are continually studying the issues around pipeline safety, and every bill we consider gives us a chance to address the lessons we learn in a bipartisan way. This bill is a strong addition to our past laws and will implement important safety measures and hold pipeline operators more accountable.”

Larsen delivered the following floor statement today:

Floor Statement of The Honorable Rick Larsen
H.R. 2845, Supporting the “Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011”

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 2845, the “Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011”.

Pipelines have a critical place in our nation’s infrastructure.  The national pipeline network of over 2.5 million miles efficiently delivers gasoline, natural gas, oil, and other essential energy products across the country each day.  

Pipelines play a vital role in our daily lives.  Cooking and cleaning, the daily commute, air travel and the heating of homes and businesses are all made possible by the readily available fuels delivered through pipelines daily.  However, because of the volatile nature of the products they deliver, incidents involving gas and hazardous liquid pipeline can and have had serious consequences.

On June 10, 1999, a pipeline explosion caused the release of about 237,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek that flowed through Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham, Washington in my Congressional district.  The gasoline ignited and tragically took the lives of two 10 year-old boys, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, and an 18 year-old young man, Liam Wood.  Eight additional inhalation injuries occurred, a single-family residence, and the city of Bellingham’s water treatment plant were severely damaged.  The wildlife in Whatcom Creek was completely destroyed.

This tragedy inspired the 2002 Pipeline Safety Improvement Act.  This act increased fines for negligent pipeline operators, improved pipeline testing timelines, provided protection for whistleblowers and allowed for state oversight of pipeline safety.  In 2006, Congress reauthorized the 2002 law by passing the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act.

These acts of Congress have made pipeline safety laws stronger, the construction of new pipelines better, and our existing infrastructure safer.  While significant progress has been made in improving the safety of our nation’s pipelines, we must remain vigilant. 

In July 2010, a 30-inch pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured and released 819,000 gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek, located near Marshall, Michigan.  The oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River, a tributary to Lake Michigan.  Heavy rains caused the river to overtop existing dams and carried oil 30 miles downstream on the Kalamazoo River toward a superfund site. Almost a year and one-half later, Enbridge is still cleaning up the spill along river banks.

Just a few months after the Enbridge spill, in September 2010, an intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), ruptured in a residential area in San Bruno, California.  The released natural gas ignited, resulting in a fire that destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 others.  Eight people were killed, many were injured, and many more were evacuated from the area.

The legislation that we are considering today addresses many concerns that were raised as a result of these and other incidents.  For example, following the incident in Bellingham, Washington, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found, among other things, that Olympic Pipe Line had no remote-operated shut off valves on the line, which could have helped prevent the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline.  Following the Bellingham incident, the Department of Transportation ordered the pipeline company to install an automatic shut-off valve just downstream of the rupture location so that the volume of product released would be limited in the event of a future pipeline rupture in that area.  

H.R. 2845 addresses the issue of shut-off valves; it requires all gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators to install automatic remote-controlled shut valves on new and replaced pipelines.

The bill also:

  • Doubles civil penalties for pipeline safety violations (from $100,000 to $200,000 per violation and from $1 million to $2 million for maximum penalties);
  • Requires the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) to evaluate and then issue regulations to expand integrity management beyond high-consequence areas; to establish performance standards for leak detection systems; and require hazardous liquid pipeline operators to install leak detection systems that meet such performance standards;
  • Requires pipeline operators, in response to the San Bruno incident, to report to DOT any time their facilities exceed maximum allowable operating pressure, and to conduct tests to confirm the material strength of previously untested gas transmission pipelines in high-consequence areas;
  • Increases the level of pipeline safety inspectors at DOT by 10, and increases the amount of technical assistance grants that are awarded to local communities from $1 million to $1.5 million annually.

H.R. 2845 is a step in the right direction when it comes to pipeline safety.  This bill is supported by the industry, and the pipeline safety community through groups like the Pipeline Safety Trust I want to thank the Chairman and all the committee members for their work on this legislation.

I also want to thank Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham which formed out of the 1999 pipeline explosion for his continued commitment to these issues.

I strongly urge Members to support the bill.