San Bruno residents and public safety officials were clueless about the existence of the natural-gas pipelines beneath streets and the safety risks they posed, and they even lacked training in case of emergency — such as the deadly Sept. 9 blast that killed eight and leveled an entire community.
In the second day of hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board into the causes of the blast, PG&E officials, who are responsible for the pipeline, were once again put on the defensive about their corporate practices and decision-making processes in the wake of the explosion.
San Bruno Fire Department Chief Dennis Haag testified that he, like most city residents, had no idea that the pipeline ran through the area until it ruptured. He also said the information provided to the Fire Department was basic and lacked a pipeline location. He also acknowledged he did not know about a national pipeline database where he could have received the information.
“We didn’t have the information; we didn’t have maps of a pipeline going through,” Haag said. “We have heard today there is a system we can access. I just didn’t know about it, to be honest with you.”
Pipeline information has become a national issue since the San Bruno disaster as PG&E and regulators have declined to put detailed pipeline maps online, citing security concerns. However, PG&E has given local responders pipeline maps.
Making the maps public, though, pits pipeline safety against the threat of a terrorist attack in a post-9/11 world, according to some officials. With only a handful of deaths from pipeline ruptures, it is unclear if widespread public knowledge of a line’s existence would make a difference in incidents like San Bruno, when it has been shown public availability of pipeline maps could pose a terrorist threat.
The hearing also highlighted the lack of communication with communities living above the pipelines, which often will only know about the situation if they take the time to read the brochures stuffed into their bills.
In a recent survey sent to 15,000 PG&E customers living near a pipeline, only 20 responded. Of the limited respondents, the majority had no knowledge they were near a pipe.
PG&E Senior Program Manager Aaron Rezendez was forced to backtrack on statements about the strength of client communication — “We are fully involved in those processes [of communicating with customers] cradle to grave” — then saying they were working to reach customers.
“We will be engaging our corporate communications group to completely reformulate the information,” he said, changing his voice and cocking his head. “We didn’t give the customer some benefit of letting us know that information.”
NTSB investigators said there are more than 300,000 miles of gas pipeline throughout the country and lack of community awareness is a recurring problem in areas where accidents have occurred.
Utilities often “beat around the bush” with literature that buries information about safety risks or doesn’t disclose pipelines in residents’ neighborhoods, according to testimony from Carl Weimer, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.
Lack of funds puts safety on the line
Pipeline regulation nationwide, a key topic after the San Bruno blast, faces major challenges due to a shortage of inspectors and a lack of funding, officials testified Wednesday at a hearing probing the deadly explosion.
“I think resources are always an issue, especially with the economic conditions we’re dealing with right now,” said Zach Barrett, the director of state programs for the U.S. Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in Washington, D.C., federal and state officials testified that pipeline regulators nationwide are struggling with furloughs, staff cuts and workers jumping to higher private sector salaries.
“It’s a resource issue in an industry whose history has been relatively safe, very safe actually,” said Richard Clark, the director of consumer protection and safety for the California Public Utilities Commission.
With the economic downturn, Clark said, it has become harder to secure funding for inspectors. He said about 20 of the CPUC’s 1,000-member staff are dedicated to pipeline safety.
Across the country, regulators need more inspectors for aging pipeline systems, Barrett said.
For example, federal officials currently do not know how many miles of pipeline nationwide have been tested using high-pressure water, said Linda Daugherty, a deputy associate administrator for PHMSA.
Compounding the problem, federal regulators have “rolled out an incredible number of new regulations over the last decade,” including control room management and operator qualifications, Daugherty said. “It takes an intense amount of training, so it’s a burden.”
— Shaun Bishop
NTSB hearings come to an end
The final day of the probe into the San Bruno blast is today, with topics set to include so-called pressure spiking on the line that exploded and other problems with testing.
- Artificially raising the pressure in a pipe will play heavily in the last day of the hearing.
- Spiking pressure on a pipe could exacerbate a pre-existing problem, creating a higher chance of rupture down the road.
- Water testing poses a risk of residual water post-testing, which could cause corrosion.
- Tested lines must be taken out of service for days, leaving neighborhoods and community services in a bind.
Find pipelines near you
Exact location information is not available to the general public, but some maps can be found online:
- Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
On the Web
Live video of the NTSB’s San Bruno hearings will be streamed online at: