Pipeline Blast: Records Review; Regulations Next

Monday, March 7, 2011 @ 02:03 PM gHale

Understanding what went wrong and how they can prevent it in the future, officials probing the deadly September gas explosion in California said they are hoping for new safety regulations for the industry.

The National Transportation Safety Board wrapped up three days of hearings last week into the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that left eight people dead and more than 30 homes destroyed.

Executives at Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility company responsible for the San Bruno pipeline, said they were working on internal reforms to reduce safety risks.

A federal report from January found the San Bruno pipeline suffered from flaws in the weld seams. Christina Sames, a vice president at the American Gas Association, said those flaws weren’t industry-wide problems, suggesting the San Bruno pipeline was “an anomaly.”

But regulators at the NTSB said the industry needed to examine its safety records in order to alleviate the risk to the public.

NTSB officials said they could start calling for better pipeline shutoff valves, including remote-controlled shutoff valves that were not in use on the San Bruno line. Smart pigs could go in a pipeline to check for internal problems while awareness campaigns could better alert the public.

While legislators look at how they can work at keeping people and buildings safer around the pipeline, back in the 1990s PG&E officials were so concerned about the risk of their natural gas transmission lines bursting during an earthquake they replaced five miles of aging underground steel pipes in San Bruno.

The problem is the utility’s construction crews ended the job on the ill-fated line 132 less than 300 yards from Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue, the site of the blast.

PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said he doesn’t know why PG&E did not replace the rest of line 132 as part of the job. PG&E documents show they replaced a section of line 132 at Glenview Drive and Plymouth Way, and a section of line 109, at Glenview Drive and San Bruno Avenue, less than half a mile away from the blast site.

“Our geosciences department is focused on seismic risk. The segment involved in this terrible tragedy was not a part of this project list. We are now undertaking a rigorous and comprehensive evaluation of every aspect of gas pipeline safety at PG&E. Safety is our highest responsibility.”

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