Federal regulators are considering boosting fines for companies that damage pipelines while excavating.
Officials in Schoharie County, where excavation is considered the likely cause of a pipeline rupture that caused a large area to be evacuated in 2010, are applauding the initiative, which is up for public comment.
The federal Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in a news release that it is proposing to strengthen damage-prevention programs and increase penalties for violators because excavation damage is the leading cause of pipeline failures.
"Those who violate damage-prevention laws must be held accountable," PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman said in the release. "We will continue to work to strengthen damage-prevention laws, partner with states to strengthen their enforcement programs and impose stiffer fines and penalties for these types of pipeline failures."
Excavation work is responsible for more than 25 percent of pipeline-related fatalities between 2002 and 2011, according to the PHMSA.
The agency issued a corrective action order following the Aug. 27, 2010, rupture of the pipeline that carries liquefied propane for about 22 miles beneath the county.
A preliminary analysis of that leak determined that the pipe broke after an inspection because of pressure from "soil placed atop the pipeline at the completion of the pipe inspection."
That rupture remains under investigation and no fine has yet been proposed against the pipeline company, now known as Enterprise Partners, according to the PHMSA website.
Excavation for maintenance of the same pipeline, when it was owned by TEPPCO, was implicated in the 1990 explosion that claimed two lives and leveled the hamlet of North Blenheim.
Another leak in the same pipeline south of Schoharie County in Delaware County caused an explosion that leveled one home in 2004 -- but that incident was blamed on a frost heave.
Schoharie County acting emergency management director Colleen Fullford said a heightened focus on excavation would be welcome.
"I think it's a great idea," she said.
Following the 2010 incident, owners of the pipeline have been notifying county officials any time maintenance work is going to take place, Fullford said.
Locals informed officials after the 2010 rupture that they saw crews digging up the ground in the vicinity of the pipeline. "We hadn't been informed at that time. Since that time, I think that they're better at informing us when they're working on things," Fullford said.
An increased emphasis on pipeline safety is especially important at this time because two major gas transportation companies are considering the development of new natural gas pipelines that would run through Schoharie County, she said.
"I think anything we can do to increase the safety of pipelines, especially ones that have shown the propensity for failure in our county, has to be done," said Jefferson Supervisor Daniel Singletary.
Blenheim Town Board member Anne Strauch, who was on a school bus that passed by the pipeline minutes before it exploded in 1990, said she supports the measure.
"I am happy to see PHMSA is increasing accountability to those working around pipelines," she said. "Unfortunately the only way to get companies to change the way they do things is to hit their pocketbooks, so the increase in fines will hopefully encourage better excavation procedures."
The strengthened rule under consideration is expected to address a directive from Congress requiring the agency to evaluate damage-prevention enforcement programs at the state level.
It also fits in with the agency's new "Call to Action," a pipeline safety effort aimed at preventing catastrophes, according to the PHMSA.
The agency is accepting public comment on the proposal, details of which can be found online at www.phmsa.dot.gov.
Schoharie County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harold Vroman said he thinks the county might send some thoughts in on the proposal.
"It doesn't sound like a bad idea," he said.
"I want to make sure I have a talk with the rest of the supervisors, but I'm sure we're going to have something to say about it," Vroman said.
Reach Gazette reporter Edward Munger Jr. at 212-6223 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2012 The Daily Gazette Co. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published April 6, 2012, in The Daily Gazette.)