Safety con­cerns

Los Angeles Times - - Latextra - John Ho­ef­fel john.ho­ef­fel@latimes.com

Bill in the U.S. Se­nate would boost stan­dards for gas pipe­lines.

Cal­i­for­nia’s sen­a­tors Wed­nes­day in­tro­duced a bill that would en­act strict new pipe­line safety stan­dards and add fed­eral in­spec­tors in the wake of the Sept. 9 nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sion in a San Bruno neigh­bor­hood that killed seven peo­ple and burned 37 houses to the ground.

The bill spon­sored by U.S. Sens. Dianne Fe­in­stein and Bar­bara Boxer, both Democrats, would re­quire au­to­matic elec­tronic shut­off valves wher­ever pos­si­ble, man­date in-line in­spec­tion de­vices or equiv­a­lent tests, and re­quire fed­eral of­fi­cials to set stan­dards for leak de­tec­tion de­vices.

Called the Strength­en­ing Pipe­line Safety and En­force­ment Act, the mea­sure would also dou­ble the num­ber of fed­eral in­spec­tors re­spon­si­ble for ex­am­in­ing 217,306 miles of in­ter­state pipe­lines to 200 over the next four years. And it would au­tho­rize civil penal­ties of up to $2.5 mil­lion for ma­jor vi­o­la­tions.

“The pipe­line ex­plo­sion in San Bruno was a tragedy that must never oc­cur again in any Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood,” Fe­in­stein said in a state­ment. “The Amer­i­can peo­ple must be as­sured that the pipe­lines that crisscross the nation and run be­neath their streets are safe.”

On Wed­nes­day, the last three vic­tims, who had been pre­sumed dead for days, were iden­ti­fied by the coro­ner. Gre­gory Bullis, 50, his son Wil­liam, 17, and his mother, Lavonne, 85, were at home when the Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. pipe­line rup­tured about 100 feet away.

The pipe was a 30-inch-di­am­e­ter un­der­ground trans­mis­sion line in­stalled in 1956. As an in­trastate pipe­line, it is in­spected by the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. The PUC has nine en­gi­neers who in­spect nat­u­ral gas pipe­lines. Julie Hal­li­gan, deputy di­rec­tor of con­sumer pro­tec­tion and safety, said, “If there are more re­quire­ments, we will need more peo­ple.”

Terry Boss, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the In­ter­state Nat­u­ral Gas Assn. of Amer­ica, said it is im­por­tant to learn why the pipe­line rup­tured to de­velop ap­pro­pri­ate reme­dies, sug­gest­ing that Cal­i­for­nia’s sen­a­tors de­mand that the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board move speed­ily. “I would rec­om­mend them to keep pres­sure on NTSB to quickly come up with even a pre­lim­i­nary cause,” he said.

But Carl Weimer, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Pipe­line Safety Trust, said the bill in­cludes many re­quire­ments that the ad­vo­cacy group has pressed for and “takes some ma­jor steps for­ward to ad­dress some of the is­sues that have come to light be­cause of the San Bruno tragedy.”

PG&E has said that it was un­able to use in-line in­spec­tion de­vices, called pigs, in the pipe­line be­cause of changes in its di­am­e­ter at var­i­ous points. Pigs, which move through the in­side of pipe­lines with sen­sors, are con­sid­ered the most re­li­able way to de­tect in­ter­nal cor­ro­sion and flaws.

The Fe­in­stein-Boxer bill would re­quire the use of pigs at least once ev­ery five years. Boss said it is very ex­pen­sive to retro­fit pipe­lines for pigs and some sec­tions would never be able to use them.

Util­ity of­fi­cials said an hour and 46 min­utes elapsed be­fore work­ers could shut off the man­ual valves on ei­ther side of the ex­plo­sion. The de­lay has re­newed calls for util­i­ties to in­stall au­to­matic valves in densely pop­u­lated ar­eas.

The bill would re­quire them “wher­ever tech­ni­cally and eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble.”

Boss said this is­sue has come up be­fore. “As far as hu­man safety is concerned, they re­ally don’t do much,” he said, not­ing that any deaths and in­juries usu­ally oc­cur when the gas explodes. But Fe­in­stein said she be­lieves au­to­matic valves should be fea­si­ble. “In to­day’s era we have elec­tronic wa­ter faucets,” she said.

The bill would also re­quire pipe­lines that can­not be in­spected with in-line de­vices ei­ther to be in­spected by other meth­ods that are just as ef­fec­tive or to be op­er­ated at lower pres­sures. Fe­in­stein said this re­quire­ment might have pre­vented the San Bruno ex­plo­sion.

The bill would also pri­or­i­tize older pipe­lines in seis­mi­cally ac­tive ar­eas for the high­est level of safety over­sight. PG&E’s pipe­lines in the San Fran­cisco Penin­sula are near the San An­dreas fault.

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