Citizens for a Safe Pipeline
Two years ago, a fifty-year-old El Paso Energy pipeline exploded near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It killed twelve innocent people from two families, including children as young as six months old.
Proposed legislation will do nothing to prevent another Carlsbad accident for five (Senate plan) to ten (House plan) years. Natural-gas companies complain that requiring inspection of their pipelines sooner could cause supply interruptions. Of course, explosions that kill people interrupt supply, too. After the Carlsbad explosion, it took almost a year to fully repair and inspect that pipeline. In the meantime supply was interrupted and the California energy crisis was exacerbated. Corrosion doesn’t stop eating away at a pipeline just because it would be inconvenient to inspect it.
Proposed legislation increases the fines for violating the law. Neither the $3 million fine that was assessed for the 1999 fatal Bellingham pipeline accident nor the $2.5 million fine assessed for the 2000 Carlsbad explosion has ever been collected. That’s more than half the fines that Office of Pipeline Safety has assessed over the last few years. It’s pointless to increase fines that an agency is too spineless to collect.
While most environmental laws provide for criminal enforcement if a company acts recklessly, criminal enforcement of pipeline laws doesn’t apply unless a company knowingly violates the law. That is a much higher standard of proof and makes criminal prosecution next to impossible. The legislation Congress is considering would do nothing to change that state of affairs.
Worse yet, the House committees passed a version that would actively weaken requirements. It would direct the Department of Transportation to create a mechanism where a company could minimize environmental review for “repairs.”
This provision is a hidden trap. It would encompass situations where a company wants to take an old worn-out pipeline and convert it to a new use. You might think that after a fifty-year-old pipeline explodes and kills twelve innocent people that Congress would want agencies to closely scrutinize proposals to extend the service life of old pipelines. You’d be wrong.
Congresswoman Wilson worked with us to try to have an appropriate definition of “repair” included in the bill so that minimized environmental review would not apply to situations other than true repairs. Her staff reported that the committee chairman specifically wanted to cover conversions of old pipelines and so would oppose such an amendment.
In the last two years there have been several serious accidents on old pipelines. In addition to the Carlsbad tragedy, a sixty-year-old Michigan pipeline spilled seventy-five thousand gallons of gasoline and forced hundreds to evacuate, some for more than a week. A thirty-year-old Texas pipeline spilled more than 500,000 gallons of gasoline, contaminated a Dallas water supply and caused $2.75 gas prices in Illinois. El Paso Energy had another old pipeline explode in Arizona, one year after Carlsbad (this time no one was killed). Old pipelines represent serious safety hazards. We should be looking harder at giving old pipelines a new lease on life—not giving them a minimized review process as the House proposes.
There are 2.2 million miles of aging pipelines in this country, many of which are considerably closer to homes and public facilities than the one in Carlsbad. It should not be necessary to wait until one explodes in an even worse accident for Congress to pass meaningful reform.
In honor of the twelve innocent people who lost their lives, please consider writing one letter or e-mail to your favorite Congressional representative and demanding accountability for this tragedy.
Carol Parker is vice president of Citizens for Safe Pipelines, a New Mexico nonprofit corporation formed to advocate for safer pipelines.