WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats in Congress voiced bipartisan displeasure Tuesday with a federal agency's progress in enacting pipeline safety improvements required as part of legislation passed into law four years ago.
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The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration enacted 26 of 42 reforms that Congress passed in 2011. But the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years is raising new questions about the agency's effectiveness and its progress on the other 16 reforms.
"Some of these provisions I am convinced would have made a difference in the recent oil spill in Santa Barbara had they been implemented in a timely manner," said Rep. Fred Upton, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey voiced similar concerns during a hearing of the committee's panel with oversight over energy issues.
"I'm deeply concerned about PMHSA's ability to carry out its mission," Pallone said.
The agency's interim executive director, Stacy Cummings, said the agency was making progress on the remaining regulations, but also did not give lawmakers a detailed timeline for completion.
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"While we are pleased to report that we have completed more than half of the mandates, we understand that there is still much more work to be done," she told the committee in her written comments.
"Some of them are a heavy lift," she added.
Cummings said the pipeline near Santa Barbara that ruptured will remain shut until the cause of the break is determined and any other risks are fixed, and that any lessons from the spill will be incorporated into policies to prevent future accidents.
New federal funding should allow the agency to boost staffing for safety inspections and accident investigations, she said.
"We are committed to quadrupling our efforts so that Americans can be confident that PHMSA is protecting people and the environment," Cummings said.
The failed line - owned by Plains All American Pipeline - released up to 101,000 gallons of oil after a breach along a heavily corroded section of pipe.
An estimated 21,000 gallons reached the Pacific Ocean and goo washed up on beaches as far as 100 miles away.
It's not clear why the problems with the pipe were not detected by company inspections.
Cummings estimated that final results of the investigation are still a few months away. She also said the agency was meeting with the company this Friday to discuss safety and other issues, she said.
Last month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the pipeline company for detailed information on maintenance of the failed line, including how it addressed corrosion. The Texas-based company has faced criticism for how long it took to relay information to the federal government, even though its internal planning documents repeatedly stress the importance of notifying the government of a leak as quickly as possible.
Blood reported from Los Angeles.