One year later: Are our pipelines really safer?


One year later, the pipeline rupture site is still an open wound at the intersection of Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive.

Surveillance video captured the first a blast of debris, then flames from a giant blow-torch shooting hundreds of feet in the air, fed by natural gas rushing through the ruptured 30-inch steel pipe. Eight people died, 50 were injured, 38 homes were destroyed and 70 more were badly damaged.

The National Transportation Safety Board took nearly the entire year to conclude it was PG&E's fault, with lax regulators playing a role.

"It is incomprehensible to me how a utility of that size could have been run so ineptly," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said. "I think the regulator got the message. I think the CPUC recognized not only was it flat-footed, it was conned."

"San Bruno was a game-changer for us from the minute it happened and in the year since then we have not rested one day in improving what we do," CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said.

PG&E did not make anyone available for the one-year anniversary, but President Chris Johns talked to reporters after the NTSB's final report.

"What I will hold ourselves accountable for, and what I would expect our regulators and our customers to hold us accountable for, is for us to take the actions necessary to show that we have a very safe gas pipeline system," Johns said.

The NTSB said that PG&E must have overlooked or ignored what was obviously substandard pipe when installing it in 1956. And then could have easily caught the defects if only a visual inspection or pressure test had been required sometime over the next 54 years. But in 1961 the state exempted pipes already installed from regular testing, and in 1970 federal regulators did the same.

Now the CPUC has gotten rid of that exemption in California and federal regulators are thinking about doing the same thing.

"There are 150,000 miles or so of grandfathered pipelines and we're leading the way and the rest of the country will follow," Clanon said.

PG&E has made a number of changes either on its own or by order of the CPUC, including reducing pressure on 1,600 miles of gas transmission lines, pressure testing 165 miles this year and using new technology to inspect interior welds.

The NTSB also faulted PG&E for having virtually no emergency response plan and called the 95 minutes it took to shut off the flow of gas "excessive."

PG&E says it's still working on a plan and will install more automatic shut-off or remote control valves.

The CPUC is also changing its approach to oversight with a new risk assessment unit.

"We're safer now than we were a year ago, a year from now we'll be safer still, and we're ahead of the nation in both of those areas but nobody in my business, nobody I the business of ensuring public safety should ever tell you you're safe," Clanon said. "The minute you start thinking the system is safe, you start getting complacent and you stop that thinking that is the absolute critical missing step in this rule box checking mechanism that we had before the accident."

Bill Magoolaghan's pregnant wife and three small children narrowly escaped that night one year ago.

A few days later, exhausted and furious, he spoke some prophetic words.

"You know, we have a World War II veteran around the corner from us saying that this was like dropping 1,000 lbs. bomb, which he did on Normandy in World War II, and you know what, it's OK to have this kind of destruction if you're running the Nazi's out of France, it's not so OK in a neighborhood and what's going to prevent this from happening to your neighborhood or your neighborhood? Well, really, San Bruno is what's going to keep this from happening to your neighborhood" Magoolaghan said.

While PG&E, the CPUC and legislators are working toward making that a reality, many agree the biggest threat to public safety is still the pipeline industry itself. In March, an industry group told the NTSB San Bruno was an "anomaly" and it continues to fight legislators like Assm. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who lost his bid to have a utility's profit rate tied to its safety record.

"When the utilities start putting their money where their mouth is then were going to start seeing some action," Magoolaghan said.

Speier believes California is headed in the right direction to having the gold standard in pipeline safety. The question is: will the gold standard be in place in time to prevent another accident?

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