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Tougher pipeline safety rules could be a tough sell

Aug 23, 2016

There's a building boom for pipelines all across the country right now, and that’s created anxiety about new pipelines close to where people live and work. While the federal government is trying to ratchet up safety rules, there are limits on what these new rules can do.

An explosion

On the morning of April 29th, news helicopters circled a charred field in western Pennsylvania. The Texas Eastern pipeline had just exploded.

When Fire Chief Bob Rosatti got there, the heat from the flames was so hot, he had to stay in his truck.

"That was the biggest fireball I’d ever seen in my life, thank God it was in a rural area. And it didn’t pose that much of a problem, it could have been a lot worse if it had been in a populous area," he said.

One person was injured. 26 year old James Baker was in his house, a few hundred feet away from the blast. He was badly burned, and his house destroyed.

Investigators think external corrosion on the pipe caused the blast. The federal government is trying to make pipelines safer, even as the country is building more of them.

Between 2004 and 2013, the natural gas industry spent $56 billion on new pipelines nationwide, according to the Department of Energy.

Spectra Energy owns the Texas Eastern pipeline. A few weeks after the explosion, officials addressed a roomful of sometimes angry residents. Spectra’s Devin Hotzel spoke that night.

"We know there's questions, we may not have all the answers tonight because this is an ongoing process," he said.

Lisa Segina attended the meeting. She lives near the blast site and has natural gas storage wells under her property.

“They need to do this safer. They need to find a safe way to move gas. I understand we need it. We need energy. I understand they need to frack, but there's safe ways to do it,” she says.

Spectra officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but they stressed that this pipeline met all federal inspection rules, including an inside the pipe inspection in 2012.

Pipeline companies like to point out they are statistically safer than alternatives, like rail or trucks, and the overall trend is that pipelines have gotten safer in recent decades.

But over the last 10 years, there have been more than 300 serious pipeline incidents, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. 132 people died.

Rebecca Craven of the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust says the current building boom puts more of the population at risk.

"There are situations where new pipelines are going through and even with the ability to move away from a house or a group of houses they are choosing to run a straight line and go close to those houses simply because it’s cheaper or there’s a wetland," she says.

New rules on the way?

The federal agency in charge of pipeline safety recently proposed new rules that may protect neighborhoods.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) wants to give suburban and less populated areas the same strict protections currently reserved for cities. The agency has other safety proposals, like mandating more testing.

Stacey Gerard is former pipeline safety chief at PHMSA and now works as a consultant.

“It’s a very deliberate, incremental process,” she says.

She says new regulations are difficult to impose because the agency has to prove the benefits of a new rule outweigh the costs. It’s a tough sell.

“There’s actions the agency would like to make that if they can't come out with a positive analysis--it won't make it into the rule,” she says.

PHMSA did not respond to interview requests for this story.  

Gerard says once-rural pipeline routes have steadily become more populated. According to Gerard, 12,000 schools in the U.S. are within 1,000 feet of a major natural gas transmission line. Given that proximity, she says there will always be tension between sending gas around the country, and keeping people near the pipelines safe.

Reid Frazier is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.

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