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In the wake of last week’s deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno, a Congressional committee met in Washington, D.C., this morning to discuss pipeline safety.

Also this morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed legislation to provide stronger oversight of the nation’s pipelines and increase penalties for violations of pipeline safety rules.

During a hearing of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which primarily focused on an oil pipeline that burst in Marshall, Mich. in late July, members of Congress also touched on Thursday’s explosion and fire in San Bruno, which left at least four people dead and destroyed 37 homes.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-Washington, D.C., said the Michigan pipeline failure, which spilled about a million gallons of crude oil into nearby waterways, is “emblematic of an aging infrastructure” and said the San Bruno disaster is “an unusually dangerous example” of that problem.

“The notion of being in your house and having it blown up because you’re sitting on top of a natural gas line or some other line is truly frightening,” Norton said.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, the lone Bay Area member of the committee, echoed that sentiment, calling aging pipelines “a very serious problem” that he hopes the legislation proposed by Secretary LaHood will address.

In the San Bruno disaster Thursday evening, a 30-inch PG&E steel gas transmission pipeline ruptured, causing a massive fire in San Bruno’s Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood. In addition to the deaths, more than 50 people were injured.

Garamendi, who also called for a field hearing in San Bruno to assess the situation there, said he hopes the proposed legislation will sort out the relationship between the federal and state government and local utilities, the accountability of pipeline owners, and the issue of urbanization around pipelines.

LaHood’s proposed “Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2010,” sent to Congress shortly before this morning’s committee hearing, would increase the maximum fine from $1 million to $2.5 million for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm.

The legislation would also require a review of rules on safety requirements for urban centers, sensitive areas or navigable waterways, and provide for improved coordination with states and other agencies on inspector training and oversight of pipeline projects.

“The nation’s pipelines, our energy highways, are by far the safest way to quickly transport large volumes of fuels and other hazardous liquids over long distances,” LaHood said in a statement.

The recent pipeline failures in San Bruno and Michigan, and another recent incident in Romeoville, Ill., show that “the department needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation’s pipeline network,” LaHood said.

A text of the proposed legislation is available at

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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