By Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo
Two members of Congress from Illinois who have gotten thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a union representing pipeline workers were instrumental in passing a law removing restrictions on the hours that pipeline workers can work and be on the road — a change some safety advocates say could pose a danger.
The legislation, passed by Congress in late December, was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Illinois, and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois.
Both received key financial support from the international Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, which represents oil and natural gas pipeline workers and lobbied for the change in the law.
In the past three years, the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union’s political action committee has contributed $20,000 to Lipinski, who represents the Southwest Side and parts of southwestern Cook County and northeastern Will County, campaign records show.
And it’s given $15,000 to Davis, who’s from downstate Taylorville — including $5,000 weeks after the welders amendment passed the U.S. House.
Commercial truck drivers are subject to strict federal rules that, for safety reasons, dictate they can’t work or travel more than 60 hours in a seven-day period.
Pipeline welders — who piece together pipes that carry oil and natural gas — had been subject to the same regulations. The reasoning was that they routinely travel across state lines for work and drive pickup trucks that, when loaded with welding equipment, weigh more than 10,000 pounds.
Daniel C. Hendrix, business manager of Local 798 Pipeliners, representing 2,200 welders who work in Illinois and elsewhere, says pipeline welders often need to work at least 12 hours a day and up to 90 hours a week.
And they spend most of that time welding pipe, not driving, according to Hendrix, who said the rules were hurting a booming pipeline industry, which turned for help to its international union, the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union.
The union’s lobbyist, Russ Breckenridge, “was very instrumental in finding the right people,” Hendrix said — including Davis, who, like Breckenridge, grew up in Taylorville, and Lipinski, the senior Illinois congressman on the House transportation committee, where Davis has served since taking office in 2013.
Lipinski and Davis wrote to other members of Congress, pitching the exemption to provide “relief to welders who are subject to onerous regulations that provide little safety benefit.”
The measure — which removes the federal work limits on pipeline welders — was passed in December as an amendment to a larger bill and signed into law.
The changes could pose a danger, according to some safety advocates.
“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 the families of accident victims.
Peter Kurdock, of the Washington group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said, “Driver fatigue, especially in the trucking industry, has been a significant safety issue for years.”
Lipinski didn’t respond to a question about the campaign money he took from the union PAC. In an email, he wrote that he supported the changes because “welders are not truck drivers, and they use their vehicles to get to a job site where they conduct a trade wholly unrelated to the driving.”
Neither Davis nor Breckenridge responded to requests for comment.
Separately, another measure backed by Lipinski and Davis and passed by Congress in December allows automobile haulers, which transport cars to dealerships, to also carry other types of cargo on return trips rather return empty.
“Having these empty trucks on our roads is bad for the economy, bad for the environment and contributes to congestion on our roads,” Lipinski said.
The legislation was sought by Jack Cooper Transport, the nation’s largest over-the-road transporter of autos, and the Automobile Carriers Conference, which is part of the American Trucking Associations.
Robert Farrell, executive director of the auto carriers group, said the law lets the industry “fill the empty miles” and use modern trucks that collapse carrier scaffolding and operate as flatbed cargo trucks on return trips.
In the past three years, the American Trucking Associations’ PAC has contributed $4,500 to Lipinski and $6,000 to Davis, including $2,500 Davis got in December, just after the bill became law.
“Truck PAC, the bipartisan 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,” according to a written statement from the group.
This was written by Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo of the Better Government Association.