In West Virginia, the worst recent incident listed on agency records was in April 2006. Four men at a Canaan Valley home building site were killed in a natural gas explosion that was later blamed on a cracked pipe.
Over the last decade in West Virginia, federal regulators counted 20 of what they called "significant incidents," involving deaths, injuries or significant property damage.
As with many public safety issues, reforms of pipeline safety sometimes come only after major accidents.
Congress passed one measure in 2002, following the deaths of two 10-year-old boys in a June 1999 explosion in Bellingham, Wash., and the deaths of 12 campers in a pipeline blast in Carlsbad, N.M.
Questions about pipeline safety recently received national media scrutiny from the public interest journalism organization ProPublica, from The New York Times and from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Just last month, ProPublica explained, "Pipelines break for many reasons - from the slow deterioration of corrosion to equipment or weld failures to construction workers hitting pipes with their excavation equipment.
"One of the biggest problems contributing to leaks and ruptures is pretty simple: pipelines are getting older. More than half of the nation's pipelines are at least fifty years old," ProPublica reported.
In early January, President Obama signed into law the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011. The bill, aimed at strengthening federal oversight of pipeline safety, was based in part on a separate bill co-sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the issue.
Among other things, the bill increased penalties for safety violations, required automatic shut-off valves on new pipelines, and increased public availability of safety information.
"Paramount to the success of America's pipeline system is an unwavering commitment to safety," Rockefeller said in December 2011, when the measure passed the Senate. "This legislation makes good on that promise by implementing long overdue improvements."
The March Congressional Research Service report, though, noted a "long-term pattern of understaffing" for pipeline safety within the Transportation Department.
"For example, the president's budget request for pipeline safety reports 175 actual employees in 2009," the report said. "However, the FY2010 budget request stated an expectation of 191 employees ("estimated") for 2009. On this basis, between 2001 and 2009, the agency reported a staffing shortfall averaging approximately 24 employees every year."
And the GAO report, also issued in March, said the federal pipeline safety office does not regulate most gathering pipelines in the United States, based on their location in remote areas."For example, out of the more than 200,000 estimates miles of natural gas gathering pipelines, PHMSA regulates roughly 20,000 miles," the GAO said. "Similarly, of the 30,000 to 40,000 estimated miles of hazardous liquid gathering pipelines, PHMSA regulates about 4,000 miles."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.