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Fuel pipelines already criss-cross this country: Who’s inspecting them?

HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- It appears persistent protests have at least postponed construction of a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline that crosses the Missouri River in or near tribal lands in North Dakota.

But what about the rest of the pipelines that deliver most of the fuel to this thirsty nation?

There are apparently eight pipelines already crossing the Missouri River, part of nearly 200,000 miles of pipelines that transport oil, gas, natural gas and other liquid energy products all across this land. More than a few run through earthquake zones, streams, rivers and farmland.

And several thousand miles of these pipelines run though Virginia, including the vast Colonial pipelines that run from Houston to New York and the Plantation pipeline system that stretches from Louisiana to Washington DC.

Historically there have been lots of failures and spills - hundreds of them - including some biggies in Virginia 35 years ago that led our state legislature to require inspections of some of these pipelines by the State Corporation Commission.

Recently I visited with the SCC's Massoud Tahamtani, Director of Utilities and Railroad Safety.

He explained that many of the intrastate pipelines and some of the interstate pipelines are inspected by the SCC. Some of lines are under the jurisdiction of the federal government and the SCC inspectors report to the Feds. Other pipelines - big interstate natural gas pipelines are inspected by the federal agencies that regulate them.

Pipelines are inspected as they are installed and are regularly tested by high-tech robots called "pigs," Tahamtani said. A team of 12 trained SCC inspectors "almost daily are out there doing inspections," he said.

Leaks are typically detected much more quickly and lines are shut down.

Ruptures caused by excavations have been dramatically reduced due to marking and awareness programs, he said.

Precise locations of the pipelines are not widely disseminated to the public because of terrorist concerns.

The owners of the pipelines also inspect and monitor their lines to minimize costly spills.

"So were constantly looking at them," Tahamtani said. "They're constantly looking at themselves and all of that, in our opinion, has translated to a pretty good safety record in Virginia."

It is far from a perfect system. We recently saw a major failure in an Alabama pipeline that impacted the southeast.

Spills can quickly dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel into the environment.

But many believe pipelines are a safer way to transport these fuels than by ship, train or truck. Pipelines also dramatically reduce transport costs.

New pipelines have been proposed or planned for Virginia and other states, and many of those plans are vigorously opposed.

But until we do something about our addiction to oil and natural gas, pressurized pipelines will continue to bring the vast majority of fuels to this most thirsty of nations.