Feds want tougher pipeline rules after accidents

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The morning after
The scene of the pipeline explosion in Clearbrook, Minn., as it looked on Nov. 27, 2007, the morning after a blast that killed two pipeline workers.
Photo courtesy of Clearwater County

A gas explosion in California and the largest oil spill ever in the Midwest have raised new doubts about the safety of tens of thousands of miles of pipeline in the United States.

Two months ago, the Kalamazoo River in southeastern Michigan ran black, bank to bank, with crude oil from a leaking three-foot pipeline. Last week, a ruptured gas line destroyed dozens of homes and killed four people in San Bruno, Calif.

Now federal authorities are now considering tougher new regulations for those pipelines, including more than 1,400 miles of gas and oil transmission lines that run through Minnesota.

The Department of Transportation today proposed tighter regulations on pipeline operators, including bigger fines for spills and more pipeline monitoring.

Only 40 percent of U.S. pipelines carrying hazardous materials receive extra scrutiny because they are in areas near homes, schools, and development.

Minnesotans are no strangers to pipeline disasters.

A gasoline pipeline leak in 1986 set fire to an entire block in Mounds View and killed a mother and daughter. In 2006, a pipeline leak sent a 75 foot geyser of oil into the air along Highway 10 near Little Falls. The next year a maintenance crew was killed in a massive fire while fixing a pipe leak near Clearbrook.

Those incidents happened in part because Minnesota is a key entry point for Canadian oil into the United States.

But state Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl, who heads the state's office of pipeline safety, said Minnesota's pipelines are safe.

"Minnesota should not be worried about neighborhoods burning up and explosions happening routinely along these transmission lines," he said.

Rosendahl also said pipeline operators are doing a good job of monitoring their pipes. He said although government should monitor the process, officials don't need to assume control of pipelines.

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"I don't believe that's necessary, no," Rosendahl said. "I think we have the enforcement power of the law to make sure the utilities are doing everything properly, and I think that's the proper role of government."

But in Washington, authorities are taking a tougher line on pipelines across the country.

The Obama administration may require higher standards for all pipelines, as development encroaches on pipelines that were once isolated.

Washington officials are considering adding staff to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which now has only 110 inspectors for the whole country.

That was one of the issues raised on Capitol Hill this morning, at a hearing called by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Chisholm, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Testimony focused on the leak in Michigan, where the leaking pipe belonged to Canadian-based Enbridge Energy. The same company operates a series of lines running from the North Dakota state line near Thief River Falls across the state to Superior, Wis.

Enbridge Energy did not respond to an MPR News inquiry about its safety practices. But Patrick Daniel, its president, told the committee today that his company was committed to safety, and that no spill was acceptable.

But federal officials testified that they've taken two dozen enforcement actions against Enbridge's Great Lakes pipeline system in the last two years.

Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said that his department is getting tough with the company in the wake of the Michigan spill.

"We have very substantial concerns, and have expressed them well before this incident, about Enbridge's management and operation," Porcari said.

He said transportation officials summoned the company's CEO to a meeting to recount previous issues and incidents and directly ask the most senior management how they would address them.

But Republicans said they're dubious.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said the federal pipeline safety agency hasn't forced Enbridge to fix a foot-long dent discovered last year under the St. Clair River -- one that might have been there since 1969.

"That's the pipeline [that] was installed," Miller said. "If they had this dent since '69, but they only installed discovered it in '09, it leads to a question about the sophistication of the technology that they are utilizing to inspect their entire pipeline."

Miller also noted that former Enbridge lawyer Cynthia Quarterman is the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Quarterman has recused herself from enforcement action against Enbridge.

But Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the committee, said he's also concerned about the safety administration, a "disaster" he said the Obama administration inherited.

"It's been that way for a long time," he said.

Oberstar said before the hearing that he's been pushing for more frequent pipeline inspections for decades and hopes Congress passes tougher regulations.

"I had an amendment, which I offered to require annual inspections," Oberstar said. "The pipeline industry said 10-year inspections would be fine. And we settled on five years. We know now that inspecting a pipeline once every five years is not sufficient."

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