Congress must keep faith with pipeline blast victims

Will Congress embarrass itself and dishonor the victims of pipeline accidents?

It has as little as a week to answer.

The issue is becoming quite simple as Congress nears the end of its session, possibly at the end of the week. Our representatives must decide whether to stand up to industry lobbyists and pass tough — not buck-passing — measures.

The dangers of inadequate safety regulation became tragically clear in the Pacific Northwest on June 10 of last year, when three young people died as a pipeline exploded. Republicans and Democrats who understand the issue have worked hard to develop regulations that will provide more protection to the public from underground petroleum pipelines. Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf, whose district includes Bellingham, and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray took the lead in finding out how the tragedy could have happened — and how other accidents can be prevented. They have had valuable assistance from the rest of Washington’s congressional delegation, particularly from Sen. Slade Gorton at critical moments and from Rep. Jay Inslee, who has worked tirelessly on the issue.

Murray managed to move a compromise bill through the Senate. It’s vital that the House Republican leadership move Metcalf’s legislation to approval so a House-Senate conference committee can be set up immediately to resolve differences between his approach and the Senate bill. Metcalf’s proposals are much stronger than those approved by the Senate. The differences are so stark that pipeline-industry lobbyists apparently hope to maneuver the House into last-minute acceptance of the entire Senate version, with no time to make any changes.

Metcalf wants Congress to take responsibility by writing clear standards for regular inspections of the pipelines. Under the Senate version, most of the key decisions about improving safety are delegated to the Office of Pipeline Safety. Trusting the office is simply not justified by the agency’s past record. Inslee has put together a list of dozens of times that the OPS has failed to act on congressional orders to make improvements to various standards. Despite better leadership at OPS over the past year, its history of coziness with the pipeline industry has contributed to continual increases in fatalities, including the August deaths of 11 people on a camping trip in New Mexico.

Unless "Trust the bureaucrats" has improbably become the Republican motto, the House leadership should recognize that Metcalf has the right approach. He sees the need not just for regular tests of pipelines but also for certification of pipeline operators, who apparently made critical mistakes in the Bellingham accident. As Metcalf said this week, "I would not be keeping faith with my constituents, the victims of the Bellingham tragedy, and the American people at large if I did not fight for the highest level of protection possible for everyone living near a pipeline."

Metcalf is retiring after this session, keeping a promise to limit his own terms to six years. It will be a fitting end to an honorable career if the Republican leadership acts immediately to pass Metcalf’s pipeline safety bill. Only then will a Senate-House conference committee have a chance to agree on a measure that keeps faith with the nation and the victims of a poorly regulated industry.

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