Safety recommendations issued in wake of SB blast

(Brian Carmody)

January 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The National Transportation Safety Board issued seven safety recommendations on Monday -- six of them listed as "urgent" -- as part of its investigation into the September San Bruno pipeline explosion and fire.

The recommendations focus on recordkeeping problems that could lead to pipelines being operated at unsafe pressure levels. The recommendation letters cite how in Minnesota's catastrophic bridge failure three years ago, investigators had to go to the garage of a retired engineer to find reliable drawings of how that bridge was constructed, and how we might be in a similar situation now with ruptured Line 132.

The NTSB says the drawings of ruptured Pipeline 132 that PG&E provided to them do not match what was actually underground. PG&E has already admitted it thought it was a seamless 30-inch pipe when it actually had multiple welds, inside and out.

But the NTSB recommendations also show that while PG&E said there was one manufacturer, that cannot be confirmed, leaving open the possibility that multiple manufacturers' materials were used.

"The question really becomes, in this whole region, how much of the pipeline system that PG&E operates is indeed seamed and how much of that pipeline system has never, ever, never been inspected?" asked Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo.

Speier calls the confusion between paperwork and reality, a regulator failure.

"Pipelines should not be landmines. There is a crisis in terms of the credibility of both PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, in my view," says Speier.

"We received the report today. We're taking a very close and exhaustive look at the recommendations. We want to make sure we fully understand those. In the meantime, we've already started a thorough records search of our pipeline records. That is already underway," says PG&E spokesman David Eisenhower.

In the backyard of Bill and Nellie Bishop's Claremont Drive home, workers continue to rebuild the retaining wall that burned in the fire. They are past being surprised about PG&E and CPUC failures, and just hope the NTSB can prevent another disaster.

"I wouldn't want to have anybody go through this. Like I've said many times, we are very, very fortunate that our house is still standing and what about our neighbors? You know, this could happen to anybody. Let's hope it doesn't," says Bill Bishop.

The NTSB recommends that PG&E aggressively verify its records, make sure lines are operating at a safe pressure for the weakest section of any given line and to pressure test any line it's unsure about. The CPUC is asked to oversee that process and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration is urged to inform the nation's pipeline industry about what has happened in San Bruno so that corrective measures can be taken elsewhere if necessary.

The cause of the explosion is still under investigation. The NTSB has called an usual full-board hearing in March. That's where we will likely hear from a man who contacted Speier's office, telling them he was involved in the original pipeline development in 1956. He was concerned then, he took pictures, and he has been interviewed by the NTSB.