News Releases

On June 10, 1999 a gasoline pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Washington killed three young people and caused severe environmental damage. Following that tragic day, Senator Patty Murray led a nationwide, bipartisan effort to improve the safety of the pipelines which transport hazardous materials throughout the country after her research showed that pipeline accidents, like the one in Bellingham, are all too frequent.

Three years of hard work, which included trips to Bellingham to engage the local community in the process and more than a dozen one-on-one meetings with other members of the Senate, finally paid off in November 2002. Congress passed long-awaited pipeline legislation, implementing important safety and inspection procedures for our nation's pipelines, and on December 17, 2002, President Bush signed the Murray-McCain pipeline safety bill into law.

This legislation will:

  • Improve the qualification and training of pipeline personnel
  • Improve pipeline inspection and prevention practices
  • Raise the penalties for safety violators
  • Enable states to expand their safety efforts
  • Invest in new technology to improve safety Recognize state citizen advisory committees and allows for their funding.

The work led the Seattle Times, in an editorial on November 16, 2002, to say:

“Murray and Larsen expressed disappointment the legislation was not tougher. Still, the bill is a vast improvement over the regulatory environment of that tragic day in Bellingham three years ago. This legislation provides a benchmark to judge success or failure, and the need for further improvements. Murray and Larsen butted heads with a tough industry, and they produced a healthy foundation for improving pipeline safety.”

Included below are Senator Murray's remarks from today's Memorial Service in Bellingham.

For more information, including a complete timeline of Senator Murray's work, please visit Senator Murray's Pipeline Safety section.


Remarks by Senator Murray on the Steps of the Bellingham City Hall

I want to thank the Mayor and the Pipeline Safety Trust for holding this ceremony and letting me join you on this solemn anniversary.

We will never forget the three young lives that were taken from us five years ago today – and the immeasurable pain that their families endure. For me, the story of the Bellingham Explosion is also the story of how a community came together to tackle a nationwide problem and protect other Americans from coast to coast. Children in every corner of America are safer today because this community stood up and said – we can't ever let this happen again.

In a moment, I'll share with you 10 specific ways we are safer today because of what you've done, but first I think it's important to think back to horrible day five years ago.

Like many people, I'd never thought about the safety of our pipelines. I assumed that someone was taking care of it. But after the Bellingham explosion, I started looking into it – and what I discovered really shocked me.

I found out there were inadequate laws, insufficient oversight, too few inspections, and a lack of awareness about pipeline dangers. I learned that one of the most important public safety offices in our government was under-funded and neglected. I asked the Inspector General at the Department of Transportation to investigate the Office of Pipeline Safety and give me recommendations for how to make the system work better.

Through my research and discussion, I learned that we needed to improve many areas like – safety standards, enforcement, penalties, technology, public education, state participation and citizen involvement.

So I wrote a bill to address all of those areas and then worked to get hearings on my bill.

I've got to tell you, at first, other Senators didn't know what I was talking about. It was as new to them as it was to me. I realized that Senators weren't going to support a new law if they weren't even aware of the problem. So I set up one-on-one meetings with more than a dozen Senators. I gave each one a packet that listed all the pipeline accidents, injuries and deaths in their states and that got their attention.

And one by one, Senators started signing up as cosponsors of my bill.

Senator John McCain of Arizona was a real champion in that effort – as was Rep. Larsen on the House side. In the Senate, we passed my pipeline bill three times – in September 2000, in February 2001, and again in March 2002. But for many years, legislation languished in the House of Representatives. Finally, we got some movement on the House side, and the House passed a bill in July 2002.

Ultimately, the Murray-McCain Pipeline Safety Act was signed into law by the president in December 2002.

A lot of people worked together to pass that law -- people here locally like Mayor Asmundson and Carl who testified at my hearing and people in Congress like Senators McCain, Hollings, Gorton, and Cantwell, and Representatives Metcaff and Larsen.

Working together we passed one of the strongest pipeline safety bills in American history.

But our work was not over. The next challenge was to fund it – and it has been a fight every year. Fortunately, I've been the senior Democrat on the Transportation Subcommittee so I've been able to make major investments in pipeline safety to carry out the law. In fact, every year the Transportation Secretary has to come before my committee when he wants funding, and he knows I’m going to ask him about pipeline safety.

He also knows that my committee is doing the oversight to keep the Office of Pipeline Safety on track.

So what has happened since we passed the law?

Let me give you 10 facts.

First, we are inspecting pipelines as never before – and our inspections are 10 times more rigorous than before. Before the Murray-McCain bill became a law, pipeline inspection was one person spending 20 hours. Today, it's a team of six people spending 240 hours. Today, all large liquid pipeline operators have been inspected twice – and – as I said -- those inspections are 10 times more comprehensive than before.

Second, we are finding and fixing pipeline problems at double the rate before the law. We are catching and repairing dangerous areas – before they turn deadly – at twice the old rate.

Third, we've boosted the Office of Pipeline Safety by 20 percent – from 135 people before up to 162 people now and most of them are inspectors. We're increasing that office at time when many other offices are being cut – so we're making up for years of neglect.

Fourth, we are making real gains in new technology. I've secured $10 million in each of the past two years so that we can develop the next generation of equipment for pipeline inspection, detection, repair and monitoring. And let me give you an example of why that new research is so important. About 30 percent of our pipelines cannot be inspected internally – you just can't put a device inside of them to check the condition of the pipeline. But we still need to inspect them. Because of our investment in research, we are close to have new techniques that allow these pipelines to be inspected from above the ground using things like ultrasound, electrical currents and aerial photography. So we're making strides in new technology.

Fifth, we have completed the national pipeline mapping system – and we've laid that map on top of a map that shows all the areas that we're most concerned about – and we've given local official access to that information.

Six, we've beefed up enforcement. In the past three years, the Office of Pipeline Safety has issued "corrective action orders" at three times the rate they did five years ago. So enforcement is much stronger today.

Seven, we're imposing much higher penalties because of our law.

In the past three years – even leaving out the largest penalties -- the average proposed civil penalty has been $45,000 compared to just $19,000 in the five years before. So we've more than doubled the size of the average penalty.

Eight, we've given local groups expertise and a real role in the process.

Nine, we've increased our coordination with states and utilities – so people are talking to each other before they dig and they're working together as they manage a community's growth.

And finally, number 10, we've boosted public education through a new standard that went into effect in December.

What do all of these results mean? They mean that we're safer today – and the statistics bear it out.

Over the past 10 years in Washington state, there were an average of about 12 pipeline incidents for every million miles of pipeline. Since our law passed, the average number of incidents has dropped from 12 down to 7 and a half. So pipeline incidents in Washington state have dropped by about 40 percent since the Murray-McCain bill became law. In addition, today Washington state has less-than-half the national average of incidents per million miles of pipeline – less than half the national average. That is progress.

As I look at all of those improvements, two things really stand out.

First, we turned a slow, reactive government agency into one that is active and that's aggressively enforcing these higher safety standards. Today, the pipeline office has closed 40 out of 50 recommendations from the N.T.S.B. It has issued new rules in record time and it's reached out to work with states and citizen groups as never before.

And here's the second thing. Not only have we given an agency in Washington, D.C. the resources and tools it needs but we've empowered local, citizen groups so we have strong watchdogs – making sure our government is really doing its job.

We have made progress, but our work is not done.

The recent natural gas rupture in Auburn -- and the fire in Renton -- shows that we still have a long way to go. I pledge to you that I will continue to use my position on the Appropriations Committee to oversee pipeline safety and to provide the funding we need to protect our community.

Five years ago today, my sister told me about what she saw happen here in Bellingham.

Two nights ago, I got an email from her. Every year, she asks her 8th grade students to write remembrances. She told me that this year an amazing number of her students wrote that the most significant day in their life was June 10, 1999. That is just one example of what a big impact the tragedy here had on everyone – kids in school, families, and the whole community.

For me, this five-year anniversary is a reminder of a very dark day for our state, a day of pain, and a day that we must never forget. And it's also a reminder that we can't just assume someone else is taking care of things. We can't slip back to where we were before. I'm committed to making sure that we keep our eye on the ball – with enforcement, oversight, coordination and funding, and I'm proud to be your partner in that effort.

Let's stay vigilant, and together we can keep our community safe and honor those we have lost.