By Lawrence Messina
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s quest for steeper pipeline safety fines following a December gas explosion near Charleston cleared its first hurdle on Friday, but only after lawmakers learned its impact may be limited.
The House Judiciary Committee amended and advanced the governor’s bill after being told it would apply to just 10 percent of the pipelines that gather natural gas from well sites.
Tomblin has proposed hiking fines per violation from $1,000 to $200,000, while the maximum civil penalty from a specific incident would increase from $200,000 to $2 million.
The Public Service Commission would impose the fines as it inspects these non-rural gathering lines. Commissioner Ryan Palmer told the committee that the sort of incidents that would prompt maximum penalties have been rare over the last decade.
Palmer said the Department of Environmental Protection oversees the remaining gathering lines, which are in rural areas. A federal agency, meanwhile, regulates interstate transmission lines.
The fiery rupture of a transmission line in Sissonville late last year prompted Tomblin’s measure. No one was killed, but the resulting inferno destroyed four homes and a section of Interstate 77. It’s also spurred a federal inquiry by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Robert Orndorff, a spokesman and lobbyist for natural gas supplier Dominion Resources, agreed with Palmer that such incidents, while dramatic, are rare. Orndorff told the committee that the proposed fines are comparable to federal civil penalties.
Palmer’s commission also regulates utilities and their rates. Delegate John Shott successfully had the bill amended to ensure that utilities don’t try hiking rates to recoup fines.
“The stockholders of a utility should pay for any neglect by their company, as opposed to the ratepayers,” the Mercer County Republican said.
The bill advances to the full House, with a vote on passage to the Senate expected next week.