A nationwide pipeline inspection program hasn’t even scratched the surface of the 620,000 miles of transmission lines and already the Office of Pipeline Safety has identified 1,200 problems in need of immediate repair.

Another 18,800 fixes can wait a bit longer.

The Office of Pipeline Safety is reporting on inspections from 16 percent of the nation’s 160,000 miles of liquid fuel transmission lines. Still to be tested, about 134,000 miles of liquid fuel lines and 326,000 miles of natural-gas transmission lines, including hundreds of miles of pipeline carrying natural gas beneath the Quad-Cities area.

Ours will be among the last to be inspected. Priority is being given to gasoline pipelines in heavily populated areas.

Natural gas lines in rural areas, like the ANR Pipeline line that blew up in Mercer County Feb. 2, 2003, likely won’t face a special inspection until next year.

The failings were disclosed in Senate committee hearings conducted this week by Sen. John McCain’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“The one element of testimony here that’s extremely disturbing, or should be a red flag, is the number of inspections that reveal a number of serious failings, or possible failings, of pipelines in the relatively small number that have been inspected,” McCain said.

One reason for McCain’s interest is a spectacular Arizona gas line failure in July 2003 that did something apparently much worse than threaten lives and destroy property: It caused a temporary gasoline shortage that spiked prices in Phoenix.

McCain’s committee called the hearings to get an update on enforcement of a 2002 law that authorized the inspections and increased the number of civil penalties it has imposed against the industry for violations.

Before that, pipeline inspections were handled primarily by the pipeline owner following government guidelines. In this area, it includes continual pressure monitoring, periodic electronic analysis and monthly flyovers to look for construction or other activity that might breach a line.

None of those techniques detected the seam crack in the ANR pipeline across Iowa and Illinois. The first clue was a 500-foot-high fireball in the night sky above New Windsor. Then things got really quiet. ANR assured locals that everything was OK. The pipeline was repaired and returned to service within four months. No further problems, ANR reps said.

A Freedom of Information request filed by this newspaper revealed that ANR’s hired inspectors found two more seam cracks that failed in testing near the blast site. Office of Pipeline Safety records indicated six other seam crack failures on the Iowa-Illinois stretch of pipe since 1974.

As Sen. McCain might say, that “should be a red flag.”

Yet ANR had no plans to modify the routine tests or begin methodical replacement of the 54-year-old steel pipe.

Only two things can trigger more stringent inspections: Our community’s turn for a special Office of Pipeline Safety inspection. Or another explosion.

We hope the Office of Pipeline Safety inspectors work quickly.