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Trumped by Federal Authority Over Pipeline Safety, Ark. Lawmakers Settle for Symbolism

Legislators want to strengthen regulations to protect the state's water supplies from oil spills, but they are powerless.

Oct 7, 2013
Cleanup efforts in the early days after the March 29 Exxon spill

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Arkansas state legislators leery of lax federal oversight of oil pipelines have attempted to beef up safety standards to try to prevent another disastrous spill in their own backyard.

They're aware, however, that their efforts are largely symbolic.

That's because, in most instances, a state statute cannot infringe on the federal government's constitutional authority to set and enforce rules about petroleum pipelines. But for local lawmakers trying to calm constituent fears after a 65-year-old pipeline burst in central Arkansas, going it alone seemed the only option in an environment where the U.S. Congress and federal regulators seem incapable of strengthening rules that pipeline safety advocates perceive as weak and ineffective.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates most of the country's liquid fuel pipelines. That includes ExxonMobil’s beleaguered Pegasus pipeline, which stretches 850 miles across four states from Patoka, Ill., to Nederland, Texas. Earlier this year PHMSA's top pipeline safety official, Jeffrey Wiese, said the regulatory process he oversees is "kind of dying." He announced that his agency is creating a YouTube channel to persuade industry to voluntarily improve safety at a time when it can take up to three years to issue a new regulation.

Arkansas passed what basically amounts to an advisory law in April, barely a month after at least 210,000 gallons of Canadian heavy tar sands crude belched from the Pegasus into a neighborhood roughly 20 miles northwest of Little Rock on March 29. That calamity was an eye-opener about how poorly operators and regulators have monitored and maintained the nation's aging and vulnerable pipeline network.

(MORE: Exclusive: Pipeline Safety Chief Says His Regulatory Process Is 'Kind of Dying')

The three-page law "encourages" but does not force petroleum pipeline companies to take a series of safety measures, which are stricter than the federal government's, on lines that cross watersheds that supply drinking water. The bill's goal is to compel companies to detect ruptures rapidly so they can speed up response time. It encourages pipeline operators to install cut-off valves that automatically sense lower flow in a pipeline and that can be automatically and manually shut off on either side of a river, stream, lake or reservoir. It also asks operators to provide training and funding for emergency responders.

In addition, the law calls for operators to identify the chemical composition of oil flowing through a pipeline; remove above-ground pipeline crossings, install additional valves and valve controls; and create a risk mitigation and response plan that includes quarterly visual inspections of all pipelines.  

Reps. John Edwards, a Democrat, and co-sponsor Andy Davis, a Republican, shepherded the pipeline safety bill through the Arkansas General Assembly. Edwards said he knew he had to tread carefully with the language in the bipartisan legislation because states can't dictate pipeline safety. Simply put, PHMSA and pipeline operators can ignore local laws that try to pre-empt or override federal authority.

PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill told InsideClimate News that the Arkansas law wouldn't conflict with federal regulations because it "encourages" but doesn't "require" stricter safety standards.

Edwards: Clean Water Can't Be Compromised

The Mayflower spill spurred Edwards into action because the Pegasus broke so close to Lake Maumelle, a drinking water source that serves 400,000 customers in and around Little Rock. The name of the law, "An Act to Improve Economic Opportunities in Arkansas by Protecting the Water Resources of the State" reflects his effort to attract votes among fellow legislators worried about the havoc a broken pipeline could cause if water were compromised.

"For me, it goes back to the point that moral authority has no boundaries," Edwards said about his decision to pursue legislation—even though pipeline operators in Arkansas could choose to ignore it. "As an elected official, you have an obligation to speak out and do what you can with something that impacts everyone. Clean, safe drinking water is one of those issues."

About 1,805 miles of the nation’s 194,157 miles of liquid fuel pipelines run through Arkansas.

Exxon spokesman Aaron Stryk did not say whether the company would follow the Arkansas law. Instead, he told InsideClimate News in an e-mail that "our commitment to operating in an environmentally responsible manner is anchored in our Environment Policy, which fosters appropriate operating practices and training, and requires our facilities to be designed, operated and managed with the goal of preventing environmental incidents."

Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization, lauded Edwards for trying to send a message to the U.S. Congress and PHMSA about the current shortcomings of pipeline safety.

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