States, Feds Need to ‘Step Up’ Pipeline Safety

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 @ 03:02 PM gHale

Just hearing the word pipeline lately seems to lead to a story about a massive explosion or a huge leak. That is why state and federal regulators need to work together to increase public confidence after a string of natural gas pipeline explosions, said the deputy administrator of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

“I think we need to step up our game, our collective game,” Jeffrey Wiese told the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners at the group’s winter meeting in Washington. “We need to really be doing our best. I intend to lead a push for better-quality risk assessment and records management. If you don’t know what you have in the ground, it’s often hard to manage the risk of that.”

The gas pipeline industry was already facing scrutiny for last year’s deadly explosion on a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) transmission line in San Bruno, California, before a trio of new blasts heightened the attention.

Last week there were two pipeline ruptures, one on UGI Utilities’ system in Allentown, Pennsylvania, killed five people and destroyed at least eight homes, and another on a Tennessee Gas Pipeline segment in a semi-rural area of eastern Ohio, which caused no injuries.

In January, the rupture of a Philadelphia Gas Works distribution main killed a utility worker and injured at least five other people.

Wiese, PHMSA’s associate administrator for pipeline safety, called the Allentown and San Bruno blasts “major tragedies,” but added the public should not overlook significant progress made by the pipeline industry in the past decade to adopt PHMSA’s integrity management program.

Rhode Island Public Utility Commissioner Paul Roberti asked whether the industry’s record in the past eight months should cause more alarm.

“I wonder if there isn’t a crisis of confidence with what’s happening,” he said. “Are we in for a period ahead where the risks are just going to climb steadily?”

“I know these people are stretched thin right now,” Wiese said. “I’m going to do what I can to help you get more resources. But you’ve got to use those resources for safety and safety inspections and keep people on the job. Just don’t shy away from the enforcement.”

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