Washington -- Legislators questioned federal officials Friday about their plans to tighten the country's pipeline safety rules following numerous high-profile spills and explosions during the past year, asking whether the lead agency overseeing energy pipelines had been overly cozy with the industry.
The highest concern of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is public safety, and reform proposals pending before Congress will give the government the authority it needs to prevent accidents, Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the agency, told a congressional committee.
It will likely be months before investigators determine what caused an oil pipeline to rupture near Billings, Mont., on July 1, spilling about 1,000 barrels of crude into the scenic Yellowstone River. The spill fouled dozens of miles of shoreline and backwaters.
Committee members also quizzed Quarterman and other panelists about a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline explosion last year in San Bruno that killed eight people, injured many more and destroyed 38 homes.
Also mentioned was the rupture of an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in July of last year in southwestern Michigan, which spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
"The industry has been driving policy," said Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes San Bruno. "We've got to make it safe for the consumers."
Quarterman said the Montana accident has focused her agency's attention on preventing pipeline failures. She previously said it will likely be August or September before water levels in the river are low enough to exhume the section of damaged pipe responsible for the spill.
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