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Federal regulators issue safety recommendations stemming from pipeline blast

Six of the seven recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board are labeled urgent. They stem from the explosion of a natural gas pipeline that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes in San Bruno last September.

January 04, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

Federal regulators Monday issued seven safety recommendations — six of them labeled urgent — stemming from the explosion of a natural gas pipeline that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes in the Bay Area community of San Bruno last September.

The urgent recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board call on pipeline operators and regulators in California and the rest of the United States to find and correct any record-keeping deficiencies that could result in pipelines being operated at pressures higher than they were designed to bear.

During their ongoing investigation of the explosion, NTSB officials found that records from Pacific Gas & Electric said that the section of pipe that ruptured Sept. 9 was of seamless-steel construction, although the line actually included welded seams.

The NTSB further discovered that some seams running along the length of the pipe were welded only on the outside, while others were welded both inside and out. Investigators are concerned that welded sections might not be as strong as seamless pipe.

"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 Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman.

Three of the recommendations, including two urgent ones, were issued to PG&E. They asked the Northern California utility to do an intensive record search to find all gas pipelines that have not been pressure-tested, to determine the safe operating pressures for pipelines based on their weakest sections and to determine safe operating pressures for pipelines using other tests if necessary.

The NTSB also asked the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to promptly inform the nation's pipeline industry of the NTSB's investigative findings and the circumstances of the San Bruno explosion so pipeline operators can take corrective action.

Finally, the NTSB directed three recommendations to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates pipeline operations in the state. The agency requested that the commission ensure that PG&E "aggressively and diligently" comply with the NTSB recommendations and to promptly inform pipeline operators in California about the San Bruno details so they too can take corrective action.

Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman, said the utility has already begun a thorough review of its records to see if they are accurate and will work on the recommendations with the NTSB, the Public Utilities Commission and federal pipeline regulators.

Though the recommendations suggest that the NTSB is looking into record-keeping problems and weld failure as possible reasons for the explosion, investigators have yet to determine the cause of the disaster. Their final report is scheduled to be released later this year.

As part of the inquiry, the five members of the NTSB have scheduled a fact-finding hearing on the San Bruno explosion for March 1-2 at the agency's conference center in Washington, D.C.

"The NTSB has put an accelerator on this investigation," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo). "Something is fundamentally wrong here. Pipelines should not be land mines. There's a problem with the credibility of PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration."

Speier added that she would call on Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint two members to the utilities commission who are concerned about consumers and safety. "The CPUC has relied on the utilities for information," she said. "We need a CPUC that protects the public."

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