Despite the objections of environmental groups, the Senate passed legislation that its supporters say will tighten pipeline safety. The measure, which was approved on Feb. 8 by a 98-0 vote, is similar to a pipeline bill the Senate passed last year. That legislation failed to pass in the House.

Driving the Senate bill were two fatal pipeline accidents, one in June 1999 in Bellingham, Wash., which killed three, and the other last August in Carlsbad, N.M., which claimed 12 lives.

The measure would boost the maximum civil penalty for safety violations to $500,000, from the current $25,000. It also would double the top civil penalty for a series of violations, to $1 million.

Among other things, the legislation also requires the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to issue rules mandating that pipeline operators test their lines periodically and set up programs to deal with risks.

Among the floor amendments adopted was one mandating internal pipeline inspections at least once every five years, unless DOT's Inspector General finds such a timetable would interrupt energy supplies or would be unnecessary or impossible to carry out because of a lack of resources.

Environmental groups opposed the bill, arguing that it is too weak.