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W.Va. House OKs skyrocketing gas pipeline safety fines

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fines would soar for safety violations involving nearly three-fourths of West Virginia's natural gas pipelines under legislation approved 91-7 Thursday by the House of Delegates.

The measure passed to the Senate follows the inferno sparked in December when a gas line ruptured in Sissonville. No one was killed but the resulting fire destroyed four homes and a section of Interstate 77.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates that and other interstate transmission lines, according to officials with the Public Service Commission. The federal agency routinely enlists the state commission to help it oversee about 3,600 miles of interstate lines that cross into West Virginia.

Thursday's bill would increase fines levied by the commission that apply to another 11,100 or so miles of pipeline that run within the state's borders. Those intrastate lines mostly deliver gas to customers, but also include nearly 300 miles of high-strength pipeline that transmits processed gas to distribution points.

The commission also inspects 55 miles of lines that gather gas from non-rural wells, in addition to about 180 miles of pipeline that carries hazardous liquid.

Proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the measure would increase fines per violation from $1,000 to $200,000 per violation. The maximum penalty would rise from $200,000 to $2 million. Industry officials say the increases put the commission's fines on par with federal penalties. Commission officials said that should trigger additional federal funding for the state agency, which regulates utilities and the rates they charge.

The House Judiciary Committee amended the governor's bill to ensure that violators can't try to recoup fines by hiking utility rates. Seven Republican delegates voted against passage: Troy Andes of Putnam County; Scott Cadle of Mason County; Marty Gearheart of Mercer County; Danny Hamrick of Harrison County; Eric Householder and Larry Kump of Berkeley County; and Randy Smith of Preston County.


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