Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Wilmington oil pipeline rupture prompts federal legislation

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A pipeline failure near Atwater Village in Northeast L.A. on May 15 spilled 10,000 gallons of crude oil. It wasn’t the first pipeline rupture in L.A. County this year. A smaller underground spill in Wilmington two months ago caught the attention of Capitol Hill. 

In March, Democratic Congresswoman Janice Hahn toured the Wilmington neighborhood where 1,200 gallons of oil bubbled up through cracks in the sidewalks. "The smell of crude oil absolutely made me and my aide sick to our stomachs," Hahn said Tuesday at a hearing she requested of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

At the hearing, which was held to examine loopholes in current regulations, pipeline officials answered questions from lawmakers about spills in their districts.

Addressing Cynthia Quarterman, head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Hahn said she represents a poor community that just happens to sit on one of the nation's biggest oil fields. The spill "wreaked havoc" on the community," Hahn said,  not just during the event, but also during the cleanup phase, which involved jackhammering the pavement.

The problem in Wilmington appears to stem from poor vocabulary.

Phillips 66 bought the pipeline more than a decade ago. Hahn said the company classified it as "idle" — a designation that doesn't exist in federal pipeline safety law. At the hearing, Quarterman said "there are active pipelines and there are abandoned pipelines" — and if a pipeline is active but idle, it still must meet federal safety requirements.

Congress passed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act in 2011. It's not due for reauthorization until 2015. In the meantime, Hahn says she's introducing two bills to address problems raised by the Wilmington spill. One measure would require either state or federal supervision when a pipe is designated as abandoned. The second bill would require a company purchasing a pipeline to conduct due diligence and determine its actual status. 

There are nearly 125,000 miles of pipeline throughout California — more than double the miles of highways that crisscross the state.

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