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Exclusive: New federal law a significant victory for gas pipeline safety

Secretary Ray LaHood

January 7, 2012

On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday evening last February, a massive pipeline explosion rocked the Allentown community. The fiery blast destroyed a neighborhood, uprooted families and took five lives — including that of a 4-month-old boy.

Not long thereafter, I toured the accident site and met with the families and neighbors affected. They told me about their loss, their suffering and their heartache.

That visit was a powerful experience. I will never forget it.

The disaster that prompted it should remind everyone exactly why pipeline safety remains one of the most pressing challenges that America's transportation system faces. And the Thursday gas explosion in Allentown that injured four people on N. Fulton Street, still under investigation, should remind everyone that our work to address this challenge is only beginning.

The fact is that America's energy transportation network is both enormous and outdated. It consists of more than 2.5 million miles of pipe, enough to circle the earth 100 times over, and much of it was installed generations ago.

Some of our older cities — for example, Philadelphia — rely on 80-year-old pipes, built on a 100-year replacement cycle. That means portions of their energy lines could be 180 years old by the time they get upgraded.

Unfortunately, we have seen the devastating consequences that aging pipelines can cause. Pipeline failure-related fatalities have increased nationwide from nine in 2008, to 13 in 2009, to 19 in 2010.

This is unacceptable. We simply must find a solution.

For our part, the Obama administration has redoubled our efforts on pipeline safety.

Last April, I called on pipeline operators to conduct a top-to-bottom review of their lines, to identify those lines most in need of repair, and to replace any lines in critical condition immediately.

Our department convened a National Pipeline Safety Forum with state officials, industry leaders and other stakeholders to agree on specific steps for improving the safety and efficiency of America's pipeline infrastructure.

We implemented an action plan to strengthen oversight, transparency and accountability — and to ensure that the public has access to pipeline safety information.

And we called on Congress to pass legislation that would give us the enforcement tools and resources we need to raise the bar for safety even higher.

That is why I am so pleased that Tuesday, with President Obama's signature, the Pipeline Safety Act of 2011 became the law of the land.

This major legislative accomplishment puts in place several new measures. It doubles the maximum civil penalties we can levy against oil and gas companies that break pipeline safety rules. It boosts the number of dedicated safety professionals available to perform inspections. And it authorizes the Department of Transportation to fund damage-prevention programs, provide technical assistance to local communities, and support both emergency response training and one-call system improvements.

All of this reflects a single, simple reality: In the Obama administration, safety is our top priority — whether it involves trains, planes, cars, trucks, buses, or pipelines. When it comes to safety, we will not take a back seat to anyone.

The American people deserve to know that our pipelines are safe, regularly inspected, and well-maintained. While our families are sleeping, we should never worry that we will be jolted out of bed by an exploding pipeline in the front yard. We should have absolute confidence that we can turn on the heat, the stove, or the computer without endangering ourselves or others.

No one can undo the damage done to the people of communities like Allentown. But we can honor them by working, day after day, to prevent future tragedies from striking our cities and towns — and from breaking our hearts. This is precisely what America's new pipeline safety law is all about.

Ray LaHood is secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Updated: Monday, April 9, 2012