A walkway and front steps lead to a destroyed home in Lawrence, Massachusetts

A walkway and front steps lead to a destroyed home on Jefferson Street in Lawrence, Massachusetts in the aftermath of a series of fires and gas explosions on Sep. 14, 2018.

(Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Markey Bill Would Greenlight Criminal Prosecution for Negligent Fossil Fuel Pipeline Operators

"Federal regulators should have all the tools they need to hold bad actors accountable—not be held hostage by industry interests," said Sen. Ed Markey.

Marking the fifth anniversary of deadly gas line explosions in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey introduced legislation that would hold pipeline companies criminally liable for wrongdoing that leads to such disasters.

The Penalizing and Improving Prevention of Emergencies (PIPE) Act, said the Massachusetts Democrat, would "close loopholes and lift barriers so the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) can better protect communities from pipeline accidents and disasters and ensure companies are held accountable."

The National Safety Transportation Board found in 2019 after a yearlong investigation that "weak engineering management" by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts led to the "abandonment of a cast iron main" gas line, as well as over-pressurization of the gas distribution system serving the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

More than a year after the disaster, Markey—a key congressional advocate of rapidly shifty from gas and other fossil fuels to renewable energy—said the company "cut corners on safety and families in the Merrimack Valley paid the price."

The explosions that resulted from Columbia Gas' mismanagement caused numerous fires across the three towns, including one that brought down a chimney on top of a car, killing 18-year-old Leonel Rondon.

At least 22 others were hospitalized, more than 130 homes and other buildings were damaged, and 50,000 people had to be evacuated as a state of emergency was declared in the region.

"The Merrimack Valley is still healing. The family of Leonel Rondon is still grieving," said Markey on Wednesday. "We must continue making progress by delivering stronger protections and allowing our federal regulators to make swift, effective safety standards. Federal regulators should have all the tools they need to hold bad actors accountable—not be held hostage by industry interests."

The senator noted in a video message on social media that Columbia Gas was ordered to pay $53 million in connection with the gas explosions—the largest-ever criminal penalty imposed under the Pipeline Safety Act—but said the fine "was still nothing compared to the price paid by our communities."

According to Markey's office, the PIPE Act would:

  • Remove a requirement for an unnecessary analysis that prioritizes company profits in safety rulemakings;
  • Close a loophole in the law that restricts the PHMSA from applying updated regulations to pipelines that are already installed;
  • Empower PHMSA to deliver greater civil penalties and hold bad actors criminally liable for violating rules; and
  • Prohibit the release of gas or hazardous liquids from any pipeline.

The legislation was supported by consumer watchdog Public Citizen, whose energy program director Tyson Slocum said the group was "proud to endorse legislation that helps protect communities from pipeline dangers, including increasing financial penalties for pipeline operators that violate the law."

Democrats in Congress have long advocated for a stronger PHMSA, but industry lobbyists have aggressively pushed to weaken legislation aimed at authorizing the agency to impose stricter safety regulations.

As a result, said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust on Wednesday, "for too long Congress has hamstrung PHMSA from being the regulator it needs to be by preventing certain rules from applying to existing pipelines, forcing regulations through two separate and burdensome cost-benefit requirements, and limiting civil penalties to meaningless amounts."

"Because of Congress' meddling, we are not making progress on long-term trends of pipeline failures," Caram said. "This bill would address these systemic weaknesses and enact commonsense improvements, like making it illegal to spill large amounts of oil. This bill finally gives PHMSA more freedom to enact rules to begin making a difference on pipeline safety."

The proposed legislation from Markey follows new federal safety regulations announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation last month.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.