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Senate panel OKs higher safety standards for pipelines

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Senate Commerce Committee approved Wednesday legislation to improve pipeline safety and oversight that included designating the Great Lakes as a sensitive area, which would make pipelines in the lakes subject to higher safety standards.

The legislation included other provisions introduced separately by Michigan Sens. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and Debbie Stabenow of Lansing in September that would require federal reviews of pipeline age and integrity. They also would direct pipeline operators and federal regulators to consider updating response plans for spills affecting waters or shorelines covered by ice – another concern in the Great Lakes region.

The lawmakers have noted the U.S. Coast Guard says the region is not prepared for a major discharge spill under solid ice, and its response would be challenged by ice-choked waters.

“It’s taken five years and nearly $1 billion to clean up the last oil spill from a pipeline break in Michigan,” said Peters, a member of the Senate Commerce panel.

“A similar spill in the Great Lakes would be devastating to our economy, environment and drinking water supply.”

Oil pipelines such as the pair owned by Enbridge running beneath the Straits of Mackinac have drawn greater scrutiny since the rupture of an Enbridge pipeline near Marshall five years ago resulted in the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

The bill advancing out of the committee did not include Peters and Stabenow’s call for a ban on tankers and barges transporting crude oil through the Great Lakes. That provision fell outside the scope of Wednesday’s bill, which reauthorizes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration through 2019.

A spokeswoman said Peters will continue working to move such a ban forward. No crude oil is currently shipped on the lakes.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, noted that the legislation would allow state inspectors to participate in the inspection and oversight of interstate pipeline safety.

The bill would also require the pipeline agency to supply “full and unredacted” copies of oil spill response plans at the request of a congressional committee – something that the agency does not do now, said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts.

“PHMSA has repeatedly refused to provide this committee and other senators from states affected by pipeline spills with unredacted copies of oil spill response plans,” Markey said at the hearing.

“We can protect sensitive security and other confidential material contained in these plans, but still allow Congress to do its required oversight to protect public health and the environment.”

The measure also directs the pipeline agency to improve its reporting of natural gas that is lost through leaks in aging pipelines and contains measures to improve the storage of hazardous materials, directing the Department of Transportation to issue minimum safety standards for the management of underground natural gas storage facilities.

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