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Senate approves pipeline safety bill

The measure stems from a series of deadly and destructive incidents, most notably the San Bruno explosion last year that killed eight people.

October 18, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The Senate unanimously approved a pipeline safety bill Monday that stemmed from a spate of incidents, including last year's deadly explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

The measure had been held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who lifted his hold after reaching agreement with Democrats to add a key recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Usually wary of regulatory oversight, Paul said he wanted to strengthen the legislation. His initial objection was that the bill was written before the NTSB completed its report on the San Bruno explosion, Paul said in a statement. "While I am in favor of as little regulation as necessary, if we are going to impose regulations, we should do it right," he said.

The measure, approved by unanimous consent, would boost fines for safety violations, increase the number of federal safety inspectors and require automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves on new gas pipelines, among other things.

But it does not include an NTSB recommendation to require automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves on existing pipelines in heavily populated areas, a response to the nearly 95 minutes it took utility workers to manually shut off gas spewing from the San Bruno site. That requirement has faced industry opposition.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed state legislation to require automatic shut-off valves in vulnerable areas and ensure that gas companies pressure-test transmission lines in California.

"This is a huge step forward for the safety of pipelines and communities across the nation," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the measure's chief sponsor. "This bill strengthens oversight and addresses long-standing safety issues that leave the public vulnerable to catastrophic pipeline accidents."

The amended bill requires that older, untested pipes operating at high pressure — such as the one that exploded under San Bruno — be strength-tested to establish safe maximum operating pressures, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the vote.

"Simply put, Californians shouldn't have to worry about streets exploding under their feet because of lax safety regulations," Feinstein said in a statement. "In San Bruno, utility officials didn't even know what type of pipe was underground, and that is inexcusable. This legislation includes long-overdue safeguards such as verifying pipeline records, establishing maximum operating pressure and allowing inspections and penalties to ensure that the law is followed. Aging infrastructure demands proper regulation to save lives, and that's the path on which this bill sets us."

A similar measure awaits action in the House.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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