ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) Federal transportation officials are launching a program to repair and replace aging oil and gas pipelines across the nation to prevent potential catastrophic explosions such as the recent deadly blasts in eastern Pennsylvania and California.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was scheduled to announce the initiative on April 4 in Allentown, where the Feb. 9 pipeline explosion leveled homes and businesses and killed five people, including an elderly couple and a 4-month-old boy.
Last September, a 44-year-old gas transmission line ruptured in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people, injuring dozens and leaving 55 homes uninhabitable. Investigators said the pipe had numerous flawed welds. And in Philadelphia in January, a gas main explosion sent a 50-foot fireball into the sky, killing a utility worker, injuring six people and forcing dozens from their homes.
“People deserve to know that they can turn on the lights, the heat, or the stove without endangering their families and neighbors,” LaHood said in a statement.
The government is calling on pipeline owners and operators to identify areas of high risk and accelerate critical repair and replacement work. The department plans new regulations to strengthen reporting and inspection requirements and making information about pipelines and the safety records of operators easily accessible to the public.
LaHood said he also plans to seek legislation to increase oversight of pipeline safety, including increasing maximum civil penalties for pipeline violations from $100,000 per day to $250,000 per day and from $1 million to $2.5 million for a series of violations.
Transportation officials say they plan an April 18 Pipeline Safety Forum at which state and industry officials and other parties are to discuss the problem.
The number of pipeline-related accidents resulting in serious injury or death has been cut nearly in half over the last two decades, but the recent accidents “have highlighted the need to address the nation’s aging pipeline infrastructure.”
Significant pipeline failures resulting in oil spills or gas explosion usually come from damage due to digging, corrosion and failure of the pipe material, welds or equipment, officials said. The latter is due to problems with valves, pumps or poor construction, they said.
The Allentown utility has said that at the current pace it could take four decades to replace the rest of its aging, cast-iron pipelines, some of which are a century old. But UGI Vice President Robert Beard told a state Senate panel that the explosion could accelerate the utility’s efforts.
The National Transportation Safety Board has said it decided not to investigate several additional pipeline accidents, including the Allentown blast and one in Philadelphia, because the current workload has strained the agency’s manpower.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in February that the board may include the findings of state investigators in safety recommendations. Steve Klejst, who heads the safety board’s section that investigates pipeline accidents, said he has only four pipeline investigators in his office.