CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite legislation signed last year, lawmakers and regulators need to further step up their actions to improve the safety of the nation's more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas and hazardous materials pipelines, a U.S. Senate committee was told Monday during a field hearing in Charleston.
Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the hearing for an update on pipeline safety issues in the wake of last month's explosion and fire at a NiSource natural gas transmission line in Sissonville.
Rick Kessler, president of a citizen group called the Pipeline Safety Trust, told the committee that Monday's hearing was just the latest in a long line of such events following previous pipeline accidents.
"With continuing major failures of pipelines, such as the one in Sissonville, West Virginia, that brings us here today, we question whether our message is being heard," said Kessler, whose group was formed following a fatal pipeline 1999 explosion in Bellingham, Wash. "It is our sincere desire not to be back in front of this committee again in the future saying the same things after yet another tragedy."
Rockefeller praised action of new legislation passed by Congress in 2011 and signed by President Obama in January 2012, but said that House Republicans "demanded watered-down provisions for an agreement to move forward" with the bill.
"It was a tough fight to get pipeline safety legislation signed into law," Rockefeller said. "However, it's important that we continue to provide rigorous oversight of the industry to determine whether serious gaps still exist in our safety requirements."
In Monday's hearing, held at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. District Courthouse, Rockefeller invited regulators, federal investigators, industry and government auditors. Rockefeller was the only committee member who attended. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is not a member of the panel, but took part in the hearing.
Sissonville resident Sue Bonham led off the hearing, describing the Dec. 11 explosion of a 20-inch-diameter natural gas transmission line that injured several people, destroyed several homes and caused a fire that engulfed and damaged a large section of Interstate 77 north of Charleston.
"I witnessed the earth being scorched, my home burning and melting, everything was blistering or exploding, my step-daughter's home [next door] imploding into ashes, and hearing the continuing roar of the explosion," Bonham said. "I looked into the sky and wondered if this was simply the end of the world."
So far, National Transportation Safety Board inspectors have found that the more than 45-year-old pipeline that blew up had severely corroded, was not designed to be inspected by modern "pigging" devices, and wasn't equipped with automatic or remote shutoff valves that could have more quickly cut off the flow of gas fueling the Sissonville fire.
Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said her agency is well on the way toward implementing provisions of the latest federal pipeline safety law.
"The act has given us important tools and authority that we need to help us achieve our mission," Quarterman said.