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Pipeline failures and fatalities get the attention of lawmakers

Finalcut_pipeline_hed_20100920.mp35.6 MB
Earlier this summer an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured near Marshall, Michigan.  More than a million gallons of crude oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, a tributary of Lake Michigan.  Last week, members of congress heard testimony about the spill during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.
During the hearing, Minnesota Representative and committee chair Jim Oberstar took aim at Enbridge Energy, a Canadian-based oil pipeline company, as well as the federal agency that regulates the pipeline industry.  Oberstar accused both organizations of knowing about hundreds of defects on Enbridge pipelines, and failing to do anything about them. 
Oberstar also accused Enbridge Energy of pressuring Michigan residents affected by the July spill to sign liability releases, waiving their rights to seek damages, in some cases in exchange for air purifiers they were told would protect them from the health effects of benzene and other toxic chemicals released into the air as a result of the spill.  Enbridge also came under fire for leading residents to believe they were required by law to grant Enbridge full access to their lifetime medical records in order to receive medical treatment.  Oberstar called this “borderline fraudulent,” and said the company was more worried about protecting itself against future liability claims than about safety.
Several Enbridge pipelines carry Canadian crude across northern Minnesota, with more under construction, and there is a history of trouble.  There have been eleven reported spills from Enbridge pipelines in Minnesota since 2002, including a fatal explosion on a pipeline near Clearbrook in 2007 that killed two people.  Enbridge was fined $2.5 million as a result of that incident. 
While the house committee hearing last week focused mainly on the Michigan oil spill, there was also testimony about the subsequent Enbridge pipeline spill in Romeoville, Illinois, and the deadly natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California on September 9.  These incidents have served to focus attention on the vast network of pipelines carrying hazardous liquids across the U.S., many of which are more than half a century old.
On the same day as the house committee hearing, September 15, the Obama Administration submitted legislation calling for tighter oversight of the pipeline industry.  The proposal gives federal officials stronger authority to regulate oil and natural gas pipelines, raises the penalty for pipeline spills from $1 million to $2.5 million dollars, and calls for more inspectors and an update of inspection policies.
Representative Oberstar said he wants to review the Obama administration proposal in the coming weeks, before lawmakers leave to campaign for mid-term elections next month.  His goal is to have a revised plan ready to debate and pass when congress returns.