NTSB slams PG&E, regulators in pipeline explosion

(Brian Carmody)
August 30, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
The findings of a nearly year-long investigation into the San Bruno pipeline explosion blast PG&E for a litany of failures. The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday laid the blame squarely on the utility.

The NTSB's final report shows the San Bruno pipeline explosion was caused by decades of deficiencies at every level of PG&E's operations, compounded by ineffective regulators. The investigation ruled out seismic activity, third party damage and corrosion.

"You cannot place blind trust in an operator that doesn't deserve that trust," NTSB Chairperson Deborah Hersman said.

"The pipe is our pipe and we're the ones responsible for the pipe when we put it in the ground, we're responsible for the maintenance for it over its length of time it's in the ground and we take full responsibility for that," PG&E President Chris Johns said.

The NTSB never could confirm where the faulty pipe was made, but says that is beside the point when PG&E should have recognized it as sub-standard or should have made that discovery sometime over the 54 years it sat underground.

"Unfortunately, I know that no matter what I say or actions that I take that we'll never be able to make up for the tragic loss of life and injury to the citizens of San Bruno," Johns said.

The NTSB says similar ruptures in 1981 in San Francisco and 2008 in Rancho Cordova were missed opportunities for PG&E to make corrections and prevent the San Bruno disaster.

"It's very upsetting, very, very upsetting, for myself and for the residents that are listening now and for the families that lost eight individuals because of this," San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said.

Among the NTSB's long list of recommendations, was one that said the governor give the California Public Utilities Commission more power to penalize utilities for safety violations.

"The recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board to give the CPUC the authority to fine is critical," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said. "That was a recommendation to the governor of California, you can be guaranteed that I will be on the phone with the governor before the end of the day."

Board members stressed that individual employees and workers were not to blame, rather it was the system in which they were working.

San Bruno residents say the NTSB's final report concluded exactly what they knew all along.

San Bruno resident Betty Kunze said the report puts responsibility right where it belongs.

"I'm finally feeling a little better because they blamed PG&E; they didn't blame anybody else, they didn't blame the city sewer pipe, they didn't blame our neighbors, they blamed PG&E," Kunze said.

It was especially hard for many to hear the NTSB conclude that opportunities were missed that could have prevented the explosion.

"Everything they said they weren't going to do, now they want to do it, they want to put in valves, automatic shutoff valves and stuff, basically that is closing the barn door after the horse is gone and they knew something was going to happen," Bob Owens said.

Rick Silverman says what bothers him the most is that PG&E has never been able to find the documents linked to the pipeline.

"I just don't understand why they don't have records, I don't believe them, I believe they have records," Silverman said.

Many San Bruno residents could not talk about Tuesday's hearing because they have pending legislation against PG&E.

In all, the NTSB issued 39 safety recommendations, possibly a record after any accident investigation.


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