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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. senators introduced legislation on Thursday to boost pipeline safety in an effort to avoid the kind of major pipeline accidents last year that destroyed homes, killed people and polluted the environment.
The bill would increase fines for reckless pipeline operators, hire more federal safety inspectors and require automatic shut-off valves to prevent oil spills and natural gas explosions.
"While our pipeline system is largely safe, when accidents occur the consequences can be catastrophic," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, who co-sponsored the legislation. "We can prevent deadly accidents by requiring more advanced technology, increased inspections, and steeper penalties for safety violations."
The United States has about 2.5 million miles of pipelines that move oil, natural gas and other hazardous liquids. There have been an average 40 pipeline accidents a year since 2006 that have killed or injured people.
Many of the safety improvements in the legislation were sought by the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
The bill specifically reauthorizes the agency through 2014 and strengthens its authority.
"Pipeline safety is vital to the nation's energy infrastructure. We look forward to working with the Congress," said agency spokeswoman Julia P. Valentine about the bill.
PHMSA's ability to oversee the nation's pipeline network was questioned last year following several high profile accidents.
A PG&E Corp natural gas line exploded in a San Francisco suburb last September, killing eight people and destroying 37 homes. Separately, several leaks on the Enbridge pipeline system collectively spilled thousands of barrels of oil in the Midwest.
Both the American Petroleum Institute and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said they welcomed the bill as a "starting point" to discuss pipeline safety, but the trade groups stopped short of endorsing the measure as currently written.
Reporting by Tom Doggett;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid