Tomblin proposes increase in pipeline safety fines
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Saying West Virginia's pipeline safety regulations are outdated -- with "weak penalties and enforcement measures" -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday night urged lawmakers to significantly beef up fines for violations.
Tomblin recalled December's major natural gas pipeline explosion and fire in Sissonville, when "many of us watched in shock when flames ripped through a community near Sissonville leaving houses leveled and a part of our highway charred."
"It was a true blessing no one was injured or killed," Tomblin said in his State of the State address.
Tomblin said he would ask lawmakers to consider legislation that would increase the maximum penalty to $200,000 per violation, per day. Currently law limits per-day penalties to just $1,000 per violation and sets a maximum of $200,000 for "any related series of violations."
The governor said state officials learned that the state's pipeline safety law "is currently out of compliance with federal guidelines," during the investigation of the Dec. 11, 2012, NiSource explosion.
But during last year's session, legislation passed the state Senate to increase West Virginia's pipeline safety fines to match those that are in federal law and enforced by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Administration.
Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, originally proposed to increase the state's penalties from a maximum of $1,000 per day to a maximum of $100,000 per day, which had been the federal maximum on the books since 2002.
"This change would mirror the federal regulations," the legislation said.
In January 2012, President Obama signed new federal pipeline safety legislation that was modeled in part on measures authored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
The new Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act increased the maximum federal penalties from $100,000 per day to $200,000 per day. It also increased the maximum for a series of related violations from $1 million to $2 million.
Obama signed the new federal law on Jan. 3, 2012. Kirkendoll introduced his original bill on Jan. 25, 2012. It was amended in the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee to match the new federal penalties. The legislation died in the House.
Last month, the Congressional Research Service issued a report that questioned whether the latest increase in federal fines would really do much to improve pipeline safety.
The report said that civil penalties -- even of $2 million for major violations -- "still account for only a limited share of the financial impact of future pipeline releases." CRS officials said use of authority to shut down pipelines or force expensive upgrades "can have a larger financial impact on a pipeline operator in terms of capital expenditures and lost revenues."
In West Virginia, the Public Service Commission enforces state pipeline safety rules. The agency's website indicates the PSC collected just $419,500 in penalties between 2001 and 2011, or an average of about $38,000 per year.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.