Standing yards away from Allentown's gas explosion ground zero, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday said he was working with pipeline owners, Congress and regulators to strengthen pipeline safety and make sure explosions like the one that happened Feb. 9 don't happen again.
LaHood, speaking at Gross Towers -- itself the site of a fatal gas explosion in 1994 -- announced he was calling for a pipeline safety forum on April 18 in Washington, where state officials, industry leaders and regulators will discuss improving pipeline safety. The safety summit would come about 21/2 months after a reportedly cracked distribution line led to a massive explosion and fire in the neighborhood at 13th and Allen streets, killing five and leveling a block of row homes.
"This is our responsibility," he said. "People shouldn't have to worry when they flip a light switch in their kitchen that it could cause an explosion in the front yard."
Gas companies and pipeline operators need to do a "top-to-bottom review" of their pipeline systems as well, he said, and accelerate the replacement of high-risk, aging pipes. LaHood last month met with pipeline CEOs to seek their support.
LaHood said he's again supporting a bill that would add federal inspectors and increase penalties on companies that violate safety rules. The bill would boost civil fines from $100,000 a day to $250,000 a day and from $1 million for a series of violations to $2.5 million. A similar bill failed to advance out of Congress last session.
Also in LaHood's action plan for pipeline safety are requirements that operators know the age and condition of their lines; that reporting and inspection rules are strengthened; and that information about pipelines and operators' safety records are easily accessible to the public.
The Obama administration's proposed budget would increase pipeline safety funding by 15 percent, LaHood noted.
Democrats and Republicans who took to the podium shared a vision of togetherness brought about by the tragedy of Feb. 9. Joining LaHood were Democrats U.S. Sen. Robert Casey and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent.
But whether that vision can be translated into legislative reality is an open question, as the parties' leaders prepare to battle over tens of billions in spending cuts this year and next. An additional roadblock could be U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, who last month said he was unlikely to support increasing the number of federal inspectors.
Shuster released a statement Monday saying pipeline safety was one of his highest priorities, but would not say whether he supports LaHood's proposals. "I am committed to further safety improvements and coordination between the federal government and state regulators, maintaining safety regulations that work, and making adjustments where necessary," it said.
Dent said he supports raising civil fines on pipeline operators who violate federal safety law, but needs to study the appropriate level of increase. He said he'd also consider increasing the number of pipeline safety inspectors, but pointed out that federal support of state inspectors has doubled since 2006.
"We may need more, but I want to make sure the state is doing more with the money they have been receiving," Dent said.
Officials from UGI Utilities, which owns and operates the pipeline implicated in the blast, were not at the event Monday. Casey said he would use public and private pressure to make sure UGI was addressing its responsibilities. "We don't have a legal hammer necessarily all the time, but we want to make sure we're doing everything possible so that they're doing everything ... to make these families whole," Casey said, referring to the displaced neighbors.
The transportation department noted that pipeline incidents resulting in injury or death are down nearly 50 percent in the last 20 years, with 36 such incidents occurring in 2010. But other incidents besides the Allentown blast, including an explosion and inferno that killed seven in San Bruno, Calif., last year, highlight the need to address aging pipelines, the officials said.
Pawlowski said Allentown, which has some pipeline that's over 100 years old, had 295 reports of leak investigations in the past 14 months, including nine that required neighborhood evacuations. UGI has said it would take it around 40 years to replace its aging cast-iron gas lines throughout Pennsylvania, which Pawlowski termed "unacceptable."
Survivors of the explosion and their relatives also briefly spoke at the event.
"Just look across the street, that vast empty space, that is why there should be pipeline regulation," said Michelle Hall, whose father-in-law and mother-in-law died in the conflagration. "No one should have to tell their kids that their grandparents died this way. That is why there should be pipeline regulation."
Antonio Arroyo, whose home at 530 N. 13th St. also was destroyed, said he missed his old neighborhood. "We felt that that ground was blessed for me and my wife," he said.
But Arroyo said he felt that the federal show of force Monday was a hopeful sign. "It seems," he said, "like they are going to make things happen for us."