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Pipeline safety bill's reauthorization will give regulators tools

| Tuesday, June 14, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
The shell is all that remains Tuesday, June 14, 2016, of a Salem house burned in a natural gas pipeline explosion in April.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
The shell is all that remains Tuesday, June 14, 2016, of a Salem house burned in a natural gas pipeline explosion in April.

Regulators will have new tools to enhance safety in a reauthorization of the federal Pipeline Safety Act the U.S. Senate approved Monday.

The act, which has been approved by the House and is awaiting the president's signature, authorizes through 2019 the operation of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates interstate transmission lines.

Safety advocates said one of the provisions of the so-called PIPES Act of 2016 could come into play at the completion of the investigation of the Texas Eastern natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township. A fireball soared hundreds of feet into the air April 29 when a 30-inch interstate transmission pipeline ruptured in a field along Route 819.

The pipeline safety administration has yet to issue a ruling on the cause of the explosion, which destroyed one house and damaged several others, seared 40 acres of farmland and left one man hospitalized with extensive burns.

If the agency determines the cause is part of an industry-wide issue, the new law could have a wide-reaching impact on the natural gas industry.

Previously, if federal inspectors found that an industry-wide issue contributed to an explosion, they could issue an emergency order against the company involved.

“Now PHMSA can issue an emergency order to make the entire industry make improvements without going through years of struggle,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department oversees the agency, said that was a critical part of the bill that recognizes the “tremendous growth in production, use and storage of natural gas.”

That growth was spurred in large part by horizontal drilling technologies that expanded the industry's ability to tap into natural gas reservoirs locked in shale deposits thousands of feet underground.

“As this country continues to be a leading producer of energy, we also need to lead on safety. This bill furthers that goal,” Foxx said in a statement hailing bipartisan support for the bill.

Weimer called the safety enhancements largely incremental.

But he hailed a provision that will allow the federal safety agency to cut through red tape in hiring to get more inspectors into the field quickly to meet the demands for oversight in the rapidly expanding natural gas industry, as well as a provision that calls for comprehensive study of the industry's integrity management program.

“The bill supports the agency's movement towards safety management systems through the development of a working group on near-miss reporting systems for pipeline operations and adopting the next generation of safety data collection and sharing,” agency administrator Marie Therese Dominguez said in a statement announcing the bill's passage.

In Salem, where residents continue to speculate about the cause of the blast, the charred remains of the former home of James Baker, the 26-year-old severely burned in the explosion, have been cordoned off with a chain-link fence.

Contract security officers from Spectra Energy Corp., the Texas company that operates the pipeline, stand guard on the pipeline right of way near the blast site.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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