Bill to increase penalties on pipeline violations passes WV Hous - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Bill to increase penalties on pipeline violations passes WV House

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Companies who commit pipeline safety violations may see their civil penalties increase.

That's because House Bill 2505 cleared yet another hurdle in moving through the legislative process—the House of Delegates passed the bill Feb. 28 by a 91-7 vote. The legislation will now move to the Senate, where Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he doesn't anticipate any changes to the bill.

House Bill 2505 brings West Virginia up to federal compliance, House Judiciary Committee vice-chairman Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said before the vote. Under current code, the maximum fine per violation is $1,000 a day until the problem is solved. Fines cannot exceed $200,000.

Under new legislation, however, those fines would increase dramatically. Fines would increase from $1,000 to $200,000 per violation, not to exceed $2 million.

"Federal law has recently changed on that issue," Manchin said. "This (bill) puts us in compliance with federal law."

However, Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, said an increase in fines could hurt Marcellus Shale-related businesses in his district.

"I think it's in the best interest for the booming industry of Marcellus that we don't take such quick reactionary measures and deter business from our state," he said.

The bill stems from a December 2012 pipeline explosion near Sissonville. Despite destroying several homes and a portion of Interstate 77, no one was killed or injured. The blast occurred when pressure dropped in a corroded 20-inch transmission line underground, close to a compressor station. Preliminary reports from the National Transportation Safety Board found Columbia Gas, which owned the line, received 16 drop-in-pressure alerts prior to the blast. Another pipeline controller sent notification to Columbia about the problem.

"I think the bill was purely a reactionary thing," Hamrick said. "It was a spur of the moment bill based on the one event that happened."

The fine increase would apply to pipeline facilities, new or existing pipe, pipe right-of-ways or any facilities used to transport liquid gas. The Public Service Commission of West Virginia would be responsible for collecting fines for violations on lines under its jurisdiction. The PSC oversees about 10 percent of gathering lines in the state, with the other 90 percent falling under state or federal jurisdiction.

Delegate Bob Ashley, R-Roane, asked if the Legislature was moving this bill because of federal regulations.

"We're just making our (fines) consistent," Manchin answered.

He also noted that gathering lines smaller than eight inches in diameter would likely not be covered by this legislation, "but it's very complicated and sometimes deals with the way the pipe is constructed," he said.

Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, issued a news release late this afternoon blasting Hamrick and the six other Republicans who voted against HB 2505.

"It is truly a shame that these seven radical Republican Delegates could not agree to a common-sense and overwhelmingly bipartisan effort to promote public safety," Puccio said. "The public needs to know that these seven Delegates have other priorities over the safety of their citizens. The natural gas industry is expanding in West Virginia and everyone supports that, but we must always keep an eye on safety issues."

Delegates Troy Andes, R-Putnam; Scott Cadle, R-Mason; Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, Larry Kump, R-Berkeley and Randy Smith, R-Preson, voted against the bill.