Pipeline Safety: NTSB Wants Major Changes

Thursday, January 6, 2011 @ 09:01 AM gHale

Urgent safety recommendations came out Monday pressing for major changes at the California utility responsible for the gas pipeline that exploded in a San Francisco suburb last year, killing eight people.

Six of the seven recommendations released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) earned the urgent classification.

The board has been investigating what caused the Sept. 9 explosion that destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno. Officials have not determined an exact cause but think the pipeline may have burst under high gas pressure.

One of the urgent recommendations asks Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to identify all gas transmission lines that haven’t yet undergone testing for safe operating pressures. The NTSB also urged California regulators to make sure the utility follows through on the testing.

The NTSB’s recommendations follows a disclosure by federal accident investigators last month the ruptured segment of the gas pipeline had a weld along its spine known as a seam weld. PG&E previously had submitted documents to state regulators showing it was unaware the pipeline had the type of welds that investigators are now examining in their search for a cause for the explosion.

“While it may seem like a small paperwork error, if companies are basing operating pressures on inadequate or erroneous information contained in their records, safety may be compromised,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. “This safety-critical issue needs to be examined carefully.”

In addition, communication problems between local governments and utilities is a national issue, another report found.

The explosion also highlighted a lack of planning and communication among utility companies, local governments, builders and homeowners — not just in California but nationwide.

That was the conclusion of a 130-member task force on pipeline safety sponsored by the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance issued a set of guidelines to head off catastrophes like the San Bruno blast.

Real estate, government and utility-company representatives teamed to write the report with the help of fire safety and emergency management officials.

More than 295,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines and 164,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines moves fuels through areas that once were rural, but now densely populated, including areas throughout California’s Bay Area and East Bay.

The recommendations include requiring local governments to get maps of all transmission lines in areas where development might take place and requiring utilities to coordinate with developers for projects planned near transmission lines. They include measures to speed emergency response and evacuation in the event of a leak or explosion.

“Until now, city regulations would only assure that a pipeline being placed in the ground is located inside an easement in any location where they are not on property owned by the utility company,” San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said in an e-mail.

A PG&E spokesman said the company is reviewing the report.

It is no mandate: Local governments can choose which guidelines to implement, if any, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Lawmakers and utilities are studying pipeline-safety technology such as “smart pigs”—robotic devices that inspect the integrity of a transmission line. In the meantime, a structure for communication can prevent a tragedy, according to the report.

Soon after the Sept. 9 explosion, PG&E, pressured by state regulators, released a list of its 100 most dangerous pipelines.

The ranking comes from the potential for corrosion, design flaws and third-party damage. At the top of the list were several sections of a petroleum pipeline that runs through the Livermore Valley. PG&E’s 30-inch San Bruno pipeline was No. 16 on the list, but not the portion of the steel line that ruptured.

Along the Interstate 680 corridor, the biggest fuel line is the 10-inch Kinder Morgan pipeline that lies alongside the Iron Horse Trail and runs through the heart of Walnut Creek, as well as Alamo, Danville and San Ramon. It carries gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Martinez to San Jose.

This pipeline carries fuel just feet away from schools, motels, homes and parks. This high-pressure pipeline burst in Walnut Creek in 2004 — a half mile or so from downtown, across South Broadway from Las Lomas High School and adjacent to a residential neighborhood. A backhoe struck a section of the pipe and set off an explosion that shot 60 feet into the air, killed five workers, burned five others badly and destroyed one house.

One of the recommendations in the report is pipelines be boldly identified with markers, yet many in San Bruno did not make a connection between the bright yellow stripes along the pipelines and a potential hazard.

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