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U.S. official chastises PG&E over San Bruno blast probe

The NTSB chief complains that the utility took nearly nine months to report there had been a 1988 leak in the same pipeline. PG&E says staffers are combing through millions of historical documents.

June 09, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Rep. Jackie Speier, left, joins National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman on the federal official's visit to the San Bruno area devastated by the blast.
Rep. Jackie Speier, left, joins National Transportation Safety Board… (Darryl Bush / Associated…)

Reporting from San Francisco -- The head of the federal agency investigating a deadly pipeline explosion scolded Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Wednesday for taking nearly nine months to report that there had been a gas leak near the disaster site years earlier.

Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said she was "disappointed" and "frustrated" that the information came so late in the ongoing investigation of the September blast, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 houses in San Bruno, a suburb south of San Francisco.

"This investigation has been in high-priority mode," Hersman said in an interview as she toured the disaster site and met with people who lost homes and loved ones. "This is information that should have been provided earlier.

"Our team was very disappointed," she said. "We made the request for records pretty quickly after the accident occurred.... We're really trying to understand what's going on. We need a full picture. It's frustrating for our investigative team so late in the game."

Hundreds of PG&E staffers are combing through millions of historical documents for anything that might be pertinent to the investigation into the explosion and fire, said utility spokesman Brian Swanson.

They discovered paperwork on May 20 documenting a leak in the same pipeline in 1988, nine to 10 miles south of the explosion site, Swanson said. The information was immediately handed over to the NTSB.

"We've acknowledged since the tragedy that our operations and our record-keeping practices are not where they need to be," Swanson said. "Our commitment is that today and going forward we are taking whatever steps are necessary to bring our record-keeping practices up to industry-leading levels to assure our customers that our system is operating safely."

Swanson said the "small leak" was discovered on gas transmission line 132 as part of an annual leak survey. At the time, PG&E cut out and replaced a 12-foot section of the pipeline.

"The document identified the leak as a longitudinal weld defect, which could refer to many things, including a small pinhole leak," Swanson said. "We immediately provided that document to the NTSB on May 20 so they can assess whether it has any relevance to their investigation into the San Bruno tragedy."

During her visit to San Bruno, Hersman announced three new NTSB recommendations aimed at improving communication. They include ensuring that pipeline operators notify 911 in their community when they're aware of a gas release. Also, she said they should make sure emergency responders are prepared in advance with information about the location, size and type of lines traversing their communities and what those lines are transporting.

She spoke of the "signs of hope" beginning to sprout in the devastated community, including trucks pouring new foundations to replace ruined structures.

But she also described the fenced-off site where the pipe burst through the ground as a "visible wound in the heart of the community."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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