Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: What Every Local Government Should Know About Pipeline Safety
James M. Pates (City Attorney, Fredericksburg, VA)


The failure of DOT to demonstrate vigorous leadership on pipeline safety issues and the increasing risks of pipeline accidents to urbanized and environmentally sensitive areas means that state and local governments will have to take a more pro-active role in protecting their citizens from pipeline accidents. The first step for any locality should be to determine whether it is potentially threatened by either gas or hazardous liquid transmission pipelines. As Fredericksburg's experience demonstrates, it is not only those communities through which a pipeline actually passes that may be vulnerable. If a locality draws its public water supply from a river, reservoir, or aquifer located downstream from or under such a liquid transmission pipeline, it should take precautions. If a municipality operates its own gas system, it should be even more aggressive on pipeline safety.

If a locality is potentially affected, it should then educate itself and undertake a comprehensive review of all its local ordinances and policies that could be revised to help reduce the risk of accidents. Fairfax County, Virginia, could serve as a model in this effort. The County formed an interagency management team that over a two-year period produced a number of valuable reports and recommendations.

This educational effort should also be conducted on a national level. The National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the IMLA, the ICMA, and similar organizations should sponsor workshops in cooperation with the Office of Pipeline Safety and the pipeline industry to highlight pipeline safety issues for local officials and to draw local government leaders into the national pipeline safety debate.

This educational effort should be followed by the formation of a national task force to formulate model local ordinances and reforms in the federal regulatory scheme. Specifically, local government officials, pipeline safety experts, and industry officials should develop standard building and excavation setbacks and right-of-way standards for all pipelines, taking into accounts various products, operating pressures, line sizes, and fire safety standards.54

To date, most localities affected by pipeline accidents have not adopted pipeline setbacks, as Edison did, due to the perceived difficulty of establishing a single distance that would be appropriate across-the-board and to fears of inverse condemnation. Such fears are unfounded. Localities routinely rely on setbacks to achieve various public policy goals and pipeline safety is no different. If such limits are reasonably drawn, with adequate procedural safeguards and variances, they are not likely to be deemed arbitrary or confiscatory.

Local governments should also get their state governments to assume greater responsibility for pipeline safety. If a state has a significant number of hazardous liquid pipelines, it should seek to take over administration of the intrastate and/or interstate safety programs. If a state does not already have a strong "Miss Utility" program, it should get one.

On a federal level, local governments should push for major reforms in the federal pipeline safety laws, in OPS regulations, and in the administration of the Office of Pipeline Safety. OPS needs to be are-invented" from top-to-bottom, not with the goal of reducing government oversight under the guise of "risk management" but with an emphasis on tougher enforcement of existing laws, greater independence from the pipeline industry, and pro-active leadership and innovation. Congress should adopt a national "Miss Utility" bill, set permanent user fees that will pay the full cost of administering the federal program and half of the state programs, and reform the Acts to ensure greater public participation. 54

Copyright © 1999 by Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Inc.
Updated: December 4, 1999