Oil spill improves chances of pipeline regulation bill

Loopholes have left Md. intrastate lines without inspections

January 31, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A waterman who said he "lost everything" when a ruptured Potomac Electric Power Co. pipeline spilled an estimated 126,000 gallons of oil into the Patuxent River in April urged senators yesterday to patch a regulatory gap that let the line escape inspection for years.

Donald Peed Jr. of Brandywine was joined by environmentalists and federal and state agencies in supporting legislation that would bring Maryland's 54 miles of intrastate oil pipelines under the supervision of the Public Service Commission.

Peed said the April 7 spill near Chalk Point in Southern Maryland, which has been described as Maryland's worst environmental disaster, fouled the waters on a stretch of river where he's fished his whole life.

"This has been a life-altering experience," Peed told the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. "I've lost everything I've worked for - my nets, everything."

The failed pipeline, which remains out of service, was not closely watched by federal regulators because it runs entirely within the state. It was not monitored by state inspectors because the PSC, which inspects intrastate gas pipelines, has no authority over oil pipelines.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety announced a $674,000 fine against Pepco, which the company said it would appeal.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, the St. Mary's County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, noted that the General Assembly rejected legislation in the mid-1990s that would have closed the loophole. He said that if the Assembly had acted then, the "disaster" might have been avoided.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a lead sponsor of the legislation in 1994 and 1995, recalled that the bills failed because of opposition from Pepco and industry lobbyists.

This year, no industry representative stepped forward to oppose the bill, which would affect the 51-mile Southern Maryland pipeline and a 3-mile Apex Oil pipeline in Baltimore.

"They're kind of embarrassed this time," Frosh said.

This year's bill even drew support from the pipeline's new owner, Mirant Mid-America LLC, which acquired Pepco's plants and pipelines in December.

Steven Arabia, Mirant's external affairs manager, said the company is committed to returning the pipeline to service and operating it safely under state regulation.

The company did, however, offer some amendments that it described as "technical."

Frosh disputed that description. "They want to make sure they emasculate the PSC as well as possible," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

But Frosh predicted the recent memory of the extensive spill would ensure the bill's survival this year.

"The skids are pretty well greased this time," he said.

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