Gov't seeks to hike fines for unsafe pipelines


Networks of oil and natural gas pipelines have helped fuel America for more than a century. The problem is some of the pipes are that old.

Now, CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports, after a series of deadly explosions, the federal government launched a program Monday to repair or replace them.

In Ohio Monday, Columbia Gas is spending $140 million to upgrade aging two-inch natural gas pipelines.

"Some of the pipes in ground pre-dates World War II," said Chris Kozak, Columbia Gas communications manager.

Upgrades designed to prevent explosions like one in Minnesota that happened two weeks ago or another one in Allentown, Penn., in February that killed five or the one in San Bruno, Calif., last September that killed eight and destroyed 55 homes.

The federal government wants to hike fines for dangerous pipelines from $100,000 to $250,000 a day.

"We have to make the delivery of natural gas and oil and other products that are delivered in pipelines the safest they can possibly be so that common ordinary citizens don't throw a switch in their house and have an explosion in their front yard," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

There are 2.4 million miles of natural gas lines in the country and about 420 state and federal inspectors to examine it. That's roughly one inspector for every 5,700 miles of pipeline.

Many, like some around Allentown, are ancient, says a pipeline watchdog.

"We have pipeline that goes back to 1899," said Rick Kessler, vice president of Pipeline Safety Trust. "Really? 1899 is the best we can do?"

And in many cases, inspections mean reviewing the maintenance records conducted by the company itself with no way of knowing how accurate they are.

"Not quite the fox in the henhouse, but certainly it is not a farm that is guarded by any dog, let's put it that way," said Kessler.

According to the government, deaths and serious injuries from natural gas accidents are down close to 50 percent in the last 20 years, but lately, with all the explosions, it doesn't look like the face of progress.

  • Jim Axelrod
    Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the chief investigative correspondent and senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.