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


An average of 448 pipeline accidents occur every year in this country, many of which could be avoided. These accidents result in hundreds of casualties. Despite the potentially devastating impacts of these accidents, few local governments and no national organizations representing local elected officials have focused attention on the problem.

The primary responsibility for pipeline regulation in the United States rests with the U. S. Department of Transportation. Unfortunately, the Office of Pipeline Safety has never taken an aggressive stance on accident prevention, but has consistently deferred to the pipeline industry. There is little reason to suspect that this will change in the near future.

A survey of federal case law shows that most litigation brought under the Acts has consisted of unsuccessful efforts by state and local governments to fill the void created by OPS' lack of initiative and set their own strict safety and environmental standards. Despite the strong preemption enjoyed by federal agencies in this field, local and state governments can still exert considerable influence and adopt carefully drawn laws that can improve pipeline safety.

The experience of Fredericksburg, Fairfax, and Edison has shown that local governments can make significant contributions toward improving pipeline safety on the local, state and federal level. All localities potentially affected by pipeline accidents should educate themselves about the actual risks they face, review their local ordinances, and adopt local measures to protect their citizens. Local government organizations should heed the call of the National Transportation Safety Board and work together to develop national safety standards and ordinances that can be adopted on a local level and to press for national reform of the federal pipeline safety program.

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