Improvements in Federal Pipeline Safety
Just a few days after the explosion the operators of the Olympic Pipe Line announced that they would soon have their pipeline repaired and put back into service because the fuel was needed, especially by SeaTac Airport. Since the cause of the pipeline failure was not yet known, restarting the pipeline made little sense to many in Bellingham. The City of Bellingham, and a quickly organized citizen group, SAFE Bellingham, began to research how pipelines were regulated, who had authority, and whether it was safe to put the pipeline back into service before the cause of the failure was even known.
It was quickly learned that the federal government regulates transmission pipelines, like the one that caused the tragedy in Whatcom Falls Park. The Office of Pipeline Safety, a small agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation has nearly complete authority over the regulation and operation of such pipelines. Due to the initial efforts of the City of Bellingham and SAFE Bellingham numerous pipeline concerns came to light, and the pipeline remained shut down for one year and eight months, the longest closure of a pipeline after an incident in U.S. history.
The magnitude of Bellingham’s tragedy allowed Washington State’s congressional delegation, led by Senators Patty Murray and Slade Gorton, and Representative Jack Metcalf and Jay Inslee, to push for changes to federal pipeline safety regulations. In October of 1999 the U.S. House held the first hearings on the Bellingham tragedy, looking for changes needed in the federal regulations to avoid similar tragedies in the future (for transcript click here ). In late 2000 the U.S. Senate passed a compromise pipeline safety bill, which safety advocates opposed leading to an ugly battle and its defeat in the U.S. House. To read the Seattle Times editorials that describe this battle click here.
In 2001 with the change in Congress (including the election of local Rep. Rick Larson) pipeline safety advocates began again to push a stronger bill through the U.S. House. That bill, the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002, was finally passed in December of 2002 and signed into law by President Bush. Four years later the Pipeline Inspection, Protections, Enforcement, and Safety Act of 2006 was passed building on protections from the 2002 bill.
These two bills put into place a new body of regulations, that along with a change in leadership and culture at the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, has led to significant improvements not only in the oversight of pipelines, but also in their actual safety performance.
Of course the best way to judge if pipeline safety has increased is to look to see if the actual number of pipeline incidents is decreasing. Below is a graph that shows the number of significant incidents for natural gas transmission pipelines (in blue) and for hazardous liquid transmission pipelines (in red) like the two pipelines that run through Whatcom Falls Park. It is probably still too early to tell whether these new regulations have really improved pipeline safety, but it would appear from this data that the number of incidents has been declining over the past few years.
To learn more about what pipeline safety regulations and initiatives have changed in the past ten years click here