Allentown, Pa. (AP) - Federal transportation officials demanded Monday that pipeline companies speed up efforts to repair and replace aging oil and gas lines, saying recent deadly explosions in Pennsylvania and California highlight the urgent need for safety improvements.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans to strengthen oversight of companies that operate a 2.5 million-mile network of pipelines that deliver oil and gas to the nation's homes and businesses. LaHood toured the ruins of a Feb. 9 pipeline explosion in Allentown that destroyed a block of row houses and killed five people, including an elderly couple and a 4-month-old boy.
"People shouldn't have to worry, when they flip a light switch in their kitchen, that it could cause an explosion in the front yard," LaHood said. "People should have absolute confidence they can turn on the heat, the stove or a computer without endangering their families and neighbors."
Although the number of pipeline-related accidents resulting in serious injury or death has been cut nearly in half over the past two decades, LaHood said, the Allentown blast and other recent catastrophic explosions showed that pipeline companies need to do more.
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 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.
Gas companies are already legally required to check pipeline integrity in highly populated areas and make repairs where necessary, but LaHood has asked executives at major pipeline companies to make it a priority.
Some pipelines in Allentown are more than 120 years old. Reading-based UGI Utilities Corp., which operates 79 miles of cast-iron pipeline in Allentown and about 300 miles across its system, has said that it could take four decades at the current pace to replace those pipes.
But UGI Vice President Robert Beard told a state Senate panel last month that the explosion could accelerate the utility's efforts.
Antonio Arroyo, 43, who lost his home in the blast, said UGI needs to go faster.
"This place is a minefield until it gets replaced," said Arroyo, who appeared at Monday's news conference with LaHood.
Michelle Hall, 40, whose husband's parents were killed in the explosion, said the empty lot where a row of homes once stood should be reason enough for utilities to act.
"That plot of land wasn't always vacant. There were eight houses, with families living in them, families who are now completely devastated," she said. "That vast empty space - that is why there should be pipeline regulation."
The Transportation Department also plans new regulations to strengthen reporting and inspection requirements and make information about pipelines and the safety records of operators easily accessible to the public.
The department also seeks legislation to enhance oversight of pipeline safety - including an increase in civil penalties for violations from a maximum of $100,000 per day to $250,000 per day and from $1 million to $2.5 million for a series of violations - and has asked for funding for 40 more inspectors.
Don Santa, the president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said his group's members were committed to pipeline safety and looking forward to working with the department.
"Last month, we formally adopted a set of five guiding principles for pipeline safety, including a goal of zero incidents - a perfect record of safety and reliability for the national pipeline system," he said in a statement. "These guiding principles stemmed from a recently formed INGAA board level pipeline safety task force, which is charged with looking at ways to improve the industry's safety performance and restore public confidence in the natural gas pipeline infrastructure."
Industry leaders, state officials and others will meet April 18 in Washington to discuss ways to improve the nation's pipeline infrastructure.
Many cast-iron pipeline systems were installed decades ago, yet states often do not require their timely replacement. Pennsylvania's cast-iron pipes - some of which are 80 years old - are not required to be replaced for another century. New York's cast-iron pipes are targeted for replacement by 2090.
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 National Transportation Safety Board has said it decided not to investigate several 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 section that investigates pipeline accidents, said he has only four pipeline investigators in his office.