Resume inspections

At a time when “regulation” is a dirtier word than ever, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is putting Kansans’ safety above politics in pressing for legislation to restore state authority to inspect underground natural-gas storage facilities.

Now his colleagues in the Senate and House – including members of the Kansas delegation who normally treat new regulation like toxic waste – need to join the cause and pass the measure, preferably at something faster than the glacial pace that is the way of Washington, D.C., these days.

Meanwhile, the Kansas House and Senate, which this year sent the federal government one of the two unanimous resolutions they passed calling for regulatory authority to inspect the facilities, should renew their plea in the 2012 session.

The safety of thousands of Kansans is at stake.

It’s common sense that somebody should be inspecting the state’s 11 underground storage sites, with a capacity of more than 270 billion cubic feet of gas.

But they’ve gone without inspections for 19 months now, since a federal judge in Topeka struck down a state law giving two state agencies the authority to regulate underground storage of hazardous gases and liquids. Agreeing with Colorado Interstate Gas Co., the judge ruled the state law infringed on federal authority over interstate commerce.

But, as Roberts said, “the federal government hasn’t stepped up to the plate to take on the responsibility either.”

That leaves Kansas at risk of explosions as bad as or worse than Hutchinson’s 2001 nightmare, when gas that had leaked from an underground storage field at Yaggy migrated seven miles and ignited in a series of eruptions over several days. Half a block of Hutchinson’s downtown business district was destroyed. An elderly couple died when their mobile home exploded. It took more than a month to burn off the remaining gas, as residents worried what might happen next.

Jolted into action by the deaths, explosions and mass evacuation, the Legislature replaced the state’s 17-year-old regulations with some of the toughest in the nation, splitting authority between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Corporation Commission. In the wake of the federal judge’s ruling, just eight fields holding 1 billion cubic feet of gas are regulated, by the KCC, because they do business only within Kansas.

Resuming inspections won’t guarantee safety. The Yaggy field, for example, had been inspected six months before the Hutchinson explosions by a KDHE intern. And once the state regains its regulatory authority, the governor and Legislature will need to back it up with adequate funding.

But as Roberts has acknowledged in taking up the cause, more inaction shouldn’t be an option: “We could have a real tragedy here if ignored.”

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman