Politics & Government

Congress passes gas-safety measure inspired by Hutchinson disaster

Gas fires continue to burn early Thursday morning at a furniture store in Hutchinson.
Gas fires continue to burn early Thursday morning at a furniture store in Hutchinson. File photo

After a five-year battle, the U.S. House on Wednesday passed a bill that will allow Kansas to resume safety inspections of underground gas storage facilities like the one that caused explosions, fire and deaths in Hutchinson.

“I’m very pleased the full House has passed this legislation that includes my provision to ensure the creation of minimum safety inspection standards at interstate underground natural gas storage facilities,” Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said in a e-mail just after the measure passed on a voice vote.

Roberts and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran have been working for about five years to restore inspections, after being alerted to the issue by Wichita Eagle coverage in 2010.

The safety bill has already passed the Senate and is expected to easily advance after a final Senate vote to accept House amendments.

“With one more (floor) vote in the Senate, the bill will head to the president’s desk to be signed into law, and we can finally ensure a proper level of oversight to prevent dangerous explosions like those that took place in Hutchinson,” Roberts said.

Moran said he was pleased Congress has finally moved to increase gas-safety oversight.

“Kansans should feel safe in their homes, and these additional safety measures will go a long way in making certain that is the case. I look forward to swift Senate passage so we can get this important legislation signed into law,” he said in an e-mail.

“I will continue to engage in the development of these new safety measures and will remain in close contact” with federal pipeline-safety agencies, he said.

Hutchinson explosion

In the 2001 Hutchinson disaster, natural gas leaked from a storage field at Yaggy, migrated 7 miles through an underground river, rose to the surface through abandoned wells in Hutchinson and blew up.

One of the explosions killed an elderly couple in their trailer home, and another destroyed half a block of businesses downtown. Fires burned in the city for more than a month as the escaped gas was flared off.

The Kansas Corporation Commission inspected underground gas storage facilities for about eight years after the Hutchinson disaster.

But the inspections were halted in 2009 by a court ruling saying that only the federal government could regulate storage fields used in the interstate transport of gas.

Since then, the storage facilities have not been inspected, because the state can’t and federal regulators wouldn’t.

The bill that passed Wednesday overrides the court decision and authorizes states to again inspect and regulate gas storage facilities.

Storage standards

Gas companies store natural gas by pumping it under high pressure into underground caverns and depleted oil and gas fields. In general, they fill the fields in hot summer months when demand is light and then withdraw gas in the winter to meet customers’ home-heating needs.

Kansas has 11 underground gas storage facilities with a capacity of more than 270 billion cubic feet of gas. The facility that caused the Hutchinson disaster, a salt cavern site, was one of the smallest in the state.

The new language on storage inspections passed as part of the PIPES Act, which enhances overall safety standards and provides funding for enforcement by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“It gives the agency the authority to have standards for underground natural gas storage facilities but allows states ... to go above those standards so that the states can better protect their citizens,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said during consideration on the House floor.

It also expands the authority of the secretary of transportation to deal quickly with dangerous pipelines.

Wednesday’s debate consisted mostly of lawmakers congratulating each other on the bipartisan House-Senate cooperation that led to the bill’s floor passage. If all goes as planned, the new law will take effect next month.

California gas leak

Roberts and Moran originally tried to pass underground storage inspection as stand-alone legislation. When that stalled, Moran was able to attach the language to the “must pass” pipeline safety bill in a Senate committee.

Gas-safety efforts got a boost this year from an October disaster in Porter Ranch, Calif., where a gas leak from a storage facility forced 7,000 families to evacuate their homes for months.

That incident, which drew national attention, broadened support for enhanced gas storage regulation in the nation’s largest state.

On Wednesday, a parade of representatives – many of them from California – went to the House microphones to praise the bill. No representatives spoke in opposition.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

Related stories from Wichita Eagle