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Congressional hearing on pipeline safety: Oberstar recalls Minnesota incidents

WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing on oil and natural gas pipeline safety centered a massive Michigan spill, but it seemed that Minnesota served as an unfortunate object lesson in the history of pipeline failures.

WASHINGTON — A Wednesday hearing on oil and natural gas pipeline safety mirrored the ones held after the BP oil spill: Congress demanded answers, the regulatory agency under fire for not adequately regulating said it was doing its best and the company responsible attempted to spin its spotty safety record as something on the good side of imperfect.

This one, however, didn’t deal with a spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It centered on an oil spill in Michigan of more than 1 million gallons from a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners.

Six Enbridge trunk pipelines span the state of Minnesota, with a further three joining them at a merger point near Clearbrook, where in 2007 an explosion killed two people. Enbridge was later fined $2.4 million for the incident.

Enbridge has been pilloried in recent weeks over safety concerns from numerous spills, both in Minnesota and beyond. But Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel used the hearing to show both apologize for the Michigan spill while attempting to recast its overall safety record.

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“To put our safety record in perspective,” said Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, “our level of spills is about 40 percent of the industry average. Based on the miles of pipeline we operate, our line break rate is roughly half of the industry average.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, in a statement announcing the hearing in his House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, focused attention not just on Enbridge but also on the federal agency responsible for regulating pipeline safety. He said the Obama administration has been engaged in a “clean-up operation” after “eight years of neglect by government regulators have allowed industry a free hand to delay inspections and repairs that have endangered the public.”

But that clean-up operation was muddied once again this week, as the lead federal investigator on the Enbridge spill was forced to recuse herself from the investigation the day before Oberstar’s hearing over conflict of interest concerns.

Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, represented Enbridge when she was an attorney at a Washington law firm, a CBS News investigation found.

Testifying in her stead at the hearing was DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari, who told the congressional panel that “safety is the number one priority” of the department.

Even still, Porcari said the Enbridge Michigan spill has prompted the department to work on “significant rulemakings to increase regulatory oversight and improve guidance to operators as well as other efforts to increase coordination with partners and to support research and development.”

Quarterman, incidentally, also headed the Minerals Management Service during the Clinton administration. That agency was the one that during the BP spill was cited for a culture of corruption stretching back decades.

Minnesota pipeline failures

While this hearing was the first since the massive Michigan spill, it seemed that Minnesota served as an unfortunate object lesson in the history of pipeline failures.

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The list is numerous: Eleven reported spills in Minnesota since 2002 from Enbridge alone, including a pipeline explosion near Clearbrook in 2007 that killed two people and for which the company’s fines totaled $2.4 million.

Rep. Jim Oberstar set the tone for the hearing with a story of an even earlier spill:

“I recall vividly in 1986, as Congress prepared for reauthorization of the pipeline safety program, a massive rupture that occurred on Williams Pipe Line in Mounds View, Minnesota. Corrosion was the culprit.

“Unleaded gasoline spilled from a 7.5 foot long opening along the longitudinal seam of the pipe. Vaporized gasoline combined with air and liquid gasoline flowed along neighborhood streets for about an hour and a half — until the manually operated gate valve was shut-off.

“About 30 minutes into the release, the gasoline vapor was ignited when an automobile entered the area. Flames engulfed three full blocks of the neighborhood, and a woman and her daughter were burned severely and later died when the fireball hit their car, and another person suffered serious burns.

“I have talked about that incident in every pipeline safety hearing this committee has held and that is because I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the devastation that rupture had caused; it will be with me for the rest of my life.”

DOT proposes stricter fines, inspection requirements

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had been in the midst of hearings on a pipeline safety regulatory bill when the Enbridge Michigan spill occurred. Those hearings will continue this fall (the next one is scheduled for Oct. 10).

Given the Michigan spill, another in Illinois from an Enbridge pipe and the recent explosion in San Bruno, Calif., federal officials now say even tougher regulatory legislation is needed than what they had been planning when those hearings began.

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The Department of Transportation released its proposal hours before Oberstar’s hearing began. Among the changes: An increased maximum penalty for overland spills to $2.5 million from the current $1 million.

The DOT’s legislation would also empanel a review board to decide whether the more stringent rules governing pipe segments in urban areas or near rivers — what the DOT calls “high-consequence” areas — should apply to the whole pipeline, including in rural areas. That rule’s greatest effects could be seen in Minnesota, especially the six Enbridge pipes that carry most of the oil that the U.S. imports from Canada across rural lands from North Dakota to Superior.

“The nation’s pipelines, our energy highways, are by far the safest way to quickly transport large volumes of fuels and other hazardous liquids over long distances,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, announcing the proposal.

“However, as the recent oil pipeline failures near Marshall, Mich., and Romeoville, Ill., have shown, as well as the tragic gas pipeline explosion in Northern California, the Department needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation’s pipeline network.”