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On October 27, 1999, Senator Murray testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, Hazardous Materials, and Pipeline Transportation. Senator Murray's testimony follows:

Thank you Chairman Franks and Ranking Minority Member Wise for holding this important hearing.

I would like to express my appreciation to all of the panelists -- especially Mr. Frank King for coming here in what must be a very difficult period to share his personal experience with us today.

I would also like to commend all of the responding partners including the Office of Pipeline Safety, the National Transportation Safety Board, the City of Bellingham, other federal and state agencies, and industry.

I'd particularly like to thank Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater for his responsiveness and Rep. Jack Metcalf, my colleague from the second Congressional district, for his leadership on this issue.

I'd also like to thank Mayor Mark Asmundson from Bellingham, who has done more to educate all of us and to work to protect the people of Bellingham than any one I know.

I wish we didn't have to be here today. I wish we could be confident that the pipelines that carry hazardous materials through our communities are safe to live and work around.

But my view of that safety changed forever on the evening of June 10th, when I stepped off a plane from Washington, D.C. into the Seatac airport, and my cell phone started ringing almost immediately. It was my sister, a teacher at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, Washington. Her voice was frantic - "Patty have you heard? Our whole world just blew up!"

The pipeline that runs directly under the parking lot of the school she teaches at blew up -- just a block from where she spends every day with a classroom of young kids. Thankfully the explosion occurred just hours after the last student had left. The explosion rocked the school and coming just weeks after Columbine, the teachers in the building raced from their classes fearing the worst and instead encountered a nightmare of a different sort -- a hailstorm of burning branches falling into their school parking lot, singeing their clothes and leaving them shaking with fear.

In an instant everyday lives were shattered. And now so many families live with real fears about pipelines they never knew existed 5 months ago.

On June 10, a pipeline ruptured. Gas leaked out, ignited, and sent a fireball racing one and a half miles down Whatcom Creek -- creating a plume of smoke that rose more than twenty thousand feet in the air. The explosion killed three young people. It shattered a community and inflicted serious environmental damage. Without warning on a quiet summer day, three young people were taken from their families in a tragedy that should never have happened.

When I viewed the damage personally a short time later, I was amazed at the wreckage. One and a half miles of creekside turned to ashes -- instantly. A salmon spawning ground I was to have dedicated a few weeks later -- gone. Neighbors who could not sleep at night. Young children, who to this day panic during lightening storms. Three families whose lives will never be the same because their children are gone.

Mr. Chairman, none of us can rest easy until we know that our citizens are protected. Today, I want to focus on the lessons of the Bellingham tragedy. And, I want us to take every step we can to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again. We have all heard that transporting hazardous liquid by pipeline is the safest and most cost-effective method available. However, I find the track record here unacceptable.

Since 1990, there have been at least six releases from pipelines across the country. All of them caused extensive environmental damage costing millions of dollars. And three of them resulted in fatalities. Clearly, the status quo is not acceptable. The NTSB is currently investigating the cause of the explosion. I understand we may not have the results in hand when we reauthorize the Office of Pipeline Safety next year. While we wait for that report, I have asked the Inspector General at the Department of Transportation to look into the practices and regulations of OPS.

I am pleased that the Inspector General has agreed to undertake this review, and I hope he will report back to me by the end of this year, in time to assist in reauthorization. Mr. Chairman, at this time I'd like to submit for the record a copy of my letter to the Inspector General.

There are a few ideas I'd like to raise that I think are important as you discuss reauthorizing the Office of Pipeline Safety.

First, we need to strengthen "right to know" standards -- because the public should not be kept in the dark when there are problems with pipelines. I think it is outrageous that under current law, the public only has the right to know about pipeline activities during negotiations on easements and rights of way. That is not acceptable. These pipelines run through and under our communities, our homes and our schools. Informing the public should be a primary and on-going priority, not a one-time event.

If you live near a pipeline, you should have a right to know the possible hazards, to know when there are problems or changes, and to know the results of any tests. -more- The victims of the Bellingham tragedy might still be with us today if their parents had been informed about the pipeline's dangerous potential to rupture. Pipeline companies should have an on-going process of informing the public when things aren't working correctly and when changes are made to a pipeline.

The second thing we need to do is make sure that the people who operate and test pipelines have the highest training and certification. That means we need to establish minimum federal standards of competency, and we need to enforce them. We should train operators and inspectors more thoroughly. We should test them periodically. And they should be certified by the government. We -- as lawmakers -- have a public duty to establish minimum federal standard to protect our constituents.

Mr. Chairman, we also need better testing and monitoring procedures. Too many of the current tests are not reliable. We need new, high-tech ways to make sure pipelines are safe. That means investing in the research and development, which will allow us to better detect pipe corrosion -- both internally and externally. We must also work to make forms of internal detection more reliable and accurate.

One of the biggest causes of pipeline leaks is "third party" damage. This usually occurs when there is construction or other disruptions on or near a pipeline. We should invest in the technology that will tell us when these activities damage a pipeline.

I hope we can help prevent "third party" damage by promoting "one-call" centers -- places people can call to find out where pipelines are and what type of activities can damage them. Statistics show that many excavators and builders don't call for pipeline information before digging or building.

While "one-call" centers have not worked as well as many people expected, I think they can be an important part of our overall efforts. We should work to improve and finance "one-call" centers.

And we must do more. We need to set federal standards for leak detection. We need to lower the threshold for reporting spills. We need to establish more periodic federal testing and inspection of pipelines. We need to finalize appropriate standards for pipelines in highly populated and environmentally sensitive areas. And we need to address the problem of aging pipelines.

Senator Gorton and I sit on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. I promise to do all I can to fight for increased funding for the Office of Pipeline Safety -- so it can achieve the objectives we require it to meet.

Mr. Chairman, before I close let me just add, that I read in this morning's Seattle Post Intelligencer that the Department plans to conduct a comprehensive review and inspection of all underground pipelines within Washington state.

This review will tell us about potential problems before there is another tragedy. It will replace fear of the unknown with accurate, scientific knowledge. I'm sure all residents of Washington state will be pleased to hear of this commitment. I want to applaud the Department for undertaking this comprehensive review.

In closing, let me say this. It shouldn't have taken the deaths of three young people in my state to bring us here today. We need to give the people who live near pipelines a right to know about possible hazards. A right to know is the first step in learning the lessons of Bellingham. But we must do more. We need to set government standards to train and certify pipeline operators and inspectors. And we need to invest in the technology that will bring us better tests so we can find and fix problems before another rupture shatters the lives of another community.

Last night, I called my sister in Bellingham. I asked her how her students were doing now. She told me the events of June 10th had forever changed the lives of all her kids. The park they used to play in was no longer safe. Their neighborhoods were no longer secure. And, they knew their three friends would not come back. She said, "my kids have lost their trust."

Mr. Chairman, we have a responsibility to act, to restore that trust, to tell our young people we will do all we can so every family living near a pipeline will have the peace of mind they deserve.

Thank you.