ALLENTOWN, Pa. - U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Allentown on April 4 to announce federal plans to streamline oversight of pipelines and improve communication among federal, state and local governments and private companies.
"I want to be able to say to people, when you throw a light switch, you shouldn’t cause an explosion in your front yard," the secretary, Ray LaHood, said in an interview. "We ought to have the decency to tell people there’s a pipeline in the front yard, if they want to know that."
Pipeline owners will come under pressure to assure that their pipelines, mostly out of sight and out of mind, are safe, he said.
LaHood invited CEOs of pipeline companies to Washington later in the week for a private meeting to discuss pipeline safety efforts.
"I asked them to provide me a list of their assets and their plans to replace the assets that are not service-worthy," LaHood said. "We're trying to step up here. I think it's our view that someone needs to step up and let the American people know there are pipelines running all over America and many of them were put in the ground 100 years ago when a lot of these communities didn't exist."
During his visit to Allentown, LaHood toured the site of a Feb. 9 natural gas explosion that killed five people and led to the demolition of eight homes.
At Allentown, LaHood discussed the president's budget proposal to increase funding for federal safety professionals.
LaHood testified on March 29 before the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies about Obama's proposal to put more money toward closing regulatory loopholes and improving pipeline safety oversight.
The administration's 2012 budget calls for $221 million for the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to "help ensure that families, communities and the environment are unharmed by the transport of chemicals and fuels on which our economy relies," LaHood said in a statement.
The condition of the cast-iron gas pipeline snaking through Allentown remains a top concern for city residents and politicians. The cracked pipe dug up five days after the explosion at 13th and Allen streets dates to 1928 and has been sent to a New Jersey laboratory for testing.
Officials from UGI Corp. said earlier this month at a hearing in Allentown that it will take the company 40 years to replace its entire system of cast-iron pipes. The company also said the pipeline at the explosion site had little to no "leak history" and was not considered a priority.
Statewide, there are 11,000 miles of aging gas pipelines in Pennsylvania alone like the one implicated in the Allentown explosion because lawmakers, regulators and gas companies have not agreed on how to accelerate pipeline replacement.
Federal investigators in 1992 warned UGI about its aging system in Allentown, saying the company probably would need to replace miles of corroding pipeline to reduce the threat to public safety. The company has said it spends $20 million a year upgrading pipelines.
LaHood is asking Congress to increase the civil penalties his department can levy on companies that violate pipeline rules - to $250,000 a day from the current $100,000, and to $2.5 million for a series of violations, up from $1 million. He also wants to close some regulatory loopholes, including those that allow some pipelines to escape any regulation at all.