Federal legislation introduced this week by our state’s two U.S. senators could close an important safety gap in Kansas and many other states.
Sen. Jerry Moran and Sen. Pat Roberts teamed up on legislation that would allow states to monitor underground natural gas storage within their borders. Such inspections were halted in Kansas 19 months ago after a Topeka federal judge ruled that, because the natural gas being stored was for interstate commerce, monitoring the safety of the storage sites was a federal responsibility.
That would be fine, except that the federal government hasn’t stepped up to meet that responsibility.
This issue is of particular concern to Kansans because of two natural gas explosions in Hutchinson in 2001. Natural gas being stored in an underground salt cavern escaped and flowed seven miles underground to Hutchinson where it popped up through abandoned brine wells and exploded. The first explosion destroyed about a half-block of businesses in Hutchinson’s downtown. A day later, the leaking gas found another escape route to the surface and exploded in a mobile home park in east Hutchinson, killing an elderly couple.
After the explosions, the Kansas Legislature passed a law that would have the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Corporation Commission split responsibility for regulating underground storage of hazardous gas and liquids. The federal court ruling, however, reduced that authority and left the KCC providing oversight for only about 4 percent of the 272 billion cubic feet of storage space in 11 Kansas locations where utilities hold gas at high pressure until it is piped out to customers.
The interest of Kansas and any other state with similar fields is obvious. The federal government may not be focused on this issue, but the safety of the people who live above or near these storage fields is of grave interest to state and local officials. The companies who use this underground storage also have a stake in ensuring the safety of the facilities, but the Hutchinson explosions prove that additional oversight is justified. The experience and local knowledge provided by in-state inspectors offer the best chance to avoid further tragedies.
The legislation being proposed by Moran and Roberts is a common sense approach to an issue that affects not only Kansas, but every state with similar natural gas storage facilities.