House must take next step on pipeline safety

Message to Washington from the Other Washington: Act now.

There is no time for delay on pipeline legislation. With the Senate having acted on Thursday, the House of Representatives must move to protect Americans from the dangers posed by the poorly regulated pipeline industry.

The House must also take a firm hand in strengthening the Senate version of a pipeline bill.

The Senate did excellent work in producing legislation that gained passage with unanimous consent last Thursday. It’s somewhere between a surprise and a miracle that the Senate managed to act at all. Credit Washington’s Sens. Patty Murray and Slade Gorton with excellent, bipartisan leadership on the issue.

The Senate bill, drafted by Arizona’s John McCain, takes important steps toward better regulation of pipelines. For the first time, states and local communities would have a chance for formal involvement in pipeline safety planning. Other provisions require that pipeline companies:

  • improve training of their personnel.
  • submit pipeline safety plans, including provisions for pipeline inspections.
  • dramatically improve public notification about the presence of pipelines and emergency preparedness.

    The public notification will be a help for many growing communities that are barely aware of a local pipeline — a dangerously common condition that prevailed here in Snohomish County until the Olympic Pipe Line Co.’s Bellingham explosion killed three young people last year.

    The tragic experience with Olympic shows that this is an industry which has indulged itself in perilously relaxed practices. Olympic’s new management deserves immense credit for its early changes, including a promise this week to replace some sections of pipe here. That hardly suggests a wholesale reform by the industry can occur without strong federal action. In fact, the industry seems stuck in a damage-control mindset. Unfortunately, the key federal agency — the Office of Pipeline Safety — is just taking its own infant steps toward gaining credibility. The McCain bill, unfortunately, puts much greater degrees of discretion in the hands of both the OPS and the industry than either has earned.

    That’s why Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf and Democrat Rep. Jay Inslee voiced determination again Thursday to pass a tougher pipeline bill, even while praising the Senate for its impressive work. The local representatives have expressed a desire for Congress to specify regular testing of pipelines, perhaps every five years, and for federal certification of employees. Metcalf and Inslee have done the serious study on the issue to earn careful attention from their congressional colleagues. Metcalf, whose district includes Bellingham, is a member of the Transportation Committee, which would approve any House version of the bill.

    With only a few weeks left in the congressional session, there’s barely time to protect the public. The House must act now. That’s the only chance to allow the 2000 Congress to leave town with a good conscience that they have done their job — to ensure public safety.

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