Two members of Congress from Illinois were instrumental in passing legislation that removed restrictions on the number of hours pipeline workers can work and be on the road – a change that’s raising concerns over safety and driver fatigue.
The legislation – sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and approved late last year – separated welders from commercial truck drivers in the eyes of the federal government.
Commercial truck drivers are subject to stringent federal rules that, for safety reasons, dictate they can’t be working or traveling more than 60 hours in a seven-day period.
Pipeline welders were being lumped in with the truckers, subject to the same regulations, because they routinely travel across state lines for work and drive pick-up trucks that weigh more than 10,000 pounds when equipped with welding equipment.
But the problem was that pipeline welders – who piece together pipes for oil and natural gas to move through – often need to work at least 12 hours a day and up to 90 hours a week, though most of that time is spent welding pipe, not driving, said Daniel C. Hendrix, business manager of Local 798 Pipeliners, which represents 2,200 welders who work around the country, including Illinois.
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Hendrix said the federal oversight was killing what otherwise has been a booming pipeline industry, and his group turned for help to its international union, the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, and the group’s lobbyist, Russ Breckenridge. Hendrix said Breckenridge “was very instrumental in finding the right people.”
One of those people was Davis who, like Breckenridge, grew up in Downstate Taylorville. In 2013, Breckenridge and Davis posed for a photo holding a Taylorville High School “Tornadoes” pennant, which the congressman displayed on Twitter with the hashtag “#hometownproud.”
Breckenridge also found Lipinski, the most senior Illinois congressman on the House transportation committee, where Davis has served since taking office in 2013.
Lipinski and Davis sent a letter to fellow members of Congress promoting the exemption to provide much-needed “relief to welders who are subject to onerous regulations that provide little safety benefit.”
Union officials were ecstatic when their measure passed in December as an amendment to larger transportation bill, and signed into law.
“Securing an exemption of this nature from Congress is a rare and difficult feat,” Tom Gross, an official with the international union, wrote to members of the group.
The measure removes all federal hourly limits on pipeline welders, who are now free to work, and drive, as long as they wish without the fear of fines from federal regulators.
However, safety advocates are unhappy and call the changes for welders “troubling.”
“We don’t want fatigued workers, no matter what type of work they were doing, getting behind a wheel and driving,” said John Lannen, executive director of Truck Safety Coalition, a Virginia-based advocacy group of truck accident survivors and families of accident victims.
Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said he’s also concerned about the welder exemption, noting “driver fatigue especially in the trucking industry has been a significant safety issue for years.”
And Kurdock’s group, based in Washington, D.C., doesn’t like the way this measure passed, without a hearing or “an opportunity for the public to review it.”
The international union not only lobbied for the changes, its political-action committee donated to the key players: $20,000 to Lipinski during the last three years and $15,000 to Davis, including $5,000 just weeks after the welders amendment passed the U.S. House, records show.
Neither Davis nor Breckenridge returned calls or emails.
Lipinski didn’t answer a question about the campaign money, but said via email he supported the legislative changes because, “Welders are not truck drivers and they use their vehicles to get to a jobsite where they conduct a trade wholly unrelated to the driving.”
Meanwhile, coupled with the welder initiative was a different measure backed by Lipinski and Davis and also passed by Congress in December. It allowed automobile haulers, which transport cars to dealerships, to carry other types of cargo on return trips rather than returning empty as before.
The legislation was sought by Jack Cooper Transport, the largest over-the-road transporter of autos, and the Automobile Carriers Conference, part of the American Trucking Associations.
Robert Farrell, executive director of the auto carrier conference, said the legislation allows the industry “to fill the empty miles” and use modern trucks which collapse carrier scaffolding and operate as flatbed cargo trucks on return trips.
Lipinski said, “Having these empty trucks on our roads is bad for the economy, bad for the environment, and contributes to congestion on our roads.”
In the last three years, the political-action committee formed by the American Trucking Associations donated $4,500 to Lipinski and $6,000 to Davis, including $2,500 given to Davis in December, just after the bill became law.
The group released a statement saying, “Truck PAC, the bi-partisan political action committee of the American Trucking Associations, supports members of Congress who have an interest in the issues affecting the trucking industry, which includes, in this case, Reps. Lipinski and Davis.”
In addition to the donations from industry sources, Jack Cooper’s lobbyist, former U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.), made small personal donations totaling $1,000 to Davis during the 2013-14 election cycle, records show.
Hulshof didn’t respond to questions. Jack Cooper had no comment.