Opinion

Our views: Keep pipeline information open to public

The utility industry is pressing lawmakers to pass a bill to exempt detailed information about pipelines from the state's public disclosure.

It was a bad idea last year when legislators let a similar bill die in the House Rules Committee. The measure deserves the same fate this year.

People considering a home purchase have a right to know if a high-pressure natural gas pipeline runs through the property and where the closest valves are. Exempting such information from scrutiny is a disservice to the public.

Gas and other utility suppliers argue that providing information to the public on the precise location of valves and pressure stations, how deeply the pipes are buried and the thickness of the pipe walls, will play into the hands of terrorists and threaten public safety.

"Maybe it's farfetched, but the threat is real," said Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association.

Tumwater City Councilman Pete Kmet disagrees. Kmet serves on the state Citizens Committee on Pipeline Safety that voted 5-2 this month in support of the industry's proposed amendment to the state Public Records Act. Kmet was opposed.

"I question the national security concern," Kmet said. "It's hard for me to believe that's a realistic concern."

Firefighters, law enforcement, state agencies and local governments must have detailed information as they respond to gas leaks and pipeline explosions. They must protect themselves and the public and need detailed information to do that. If they have the records, so should the public.

And let's be honest here. The pipeline industry does not have a very good reputation or record in this state.

This state has a Pipeline Safety Act because of a horrendous pipeline explosion and fire on June 10, 1999. In that accident 277,000 gallons of fuel from a broken pipeline leaked into Hanna and Whatcom creeks in Bellingham. The fuel was ignited and the fiery explosion of the Olympic Pipe Line Co. fuel line claimed the lives of two young boys and a teenager.

Subsequent investigations found an industry that was out of control with poor oversight.

The public has a right to know where pipelines run. The maps have to be in enough detail so homeowners know whether pipelines and pressure stations might have a direct impact on their property and safety.

The fact that the industry is seeking to put more records beyond the reach of the public goes against what Attorney General Rob McKenna is trying to accomplish. He wants to examine the exemptions to the open records act to determine whether those exemptions are warranted - not put more records beyond the reach of the public.

Under the proposed legislation, the release of data to the public would be limited to pipeline location maps at no greater detail than a scale of 1-to-24,000, which is equivalent to one inch to 2,000 feet.

"That's not enough data for neighborhoods in urban areas," Kmet said. Industry officials disagree. But we'll trust Kmet's judgment on this issue because he has the public's interest at heart.

In the wake of the Bellingham explosion, members of the public rightfully demanded more public scrutiny, more inspections and more oversight of the pipeline industry in this state. Less information and sealed records are not the answer. For more information

Tracking a bill: To view the text of House Bill 1478 or any bill, background information, a summary of committee testimony and how individual legislators voted, go to www.leg.wa.gov/legislature.

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