WASHINGTON (CBS 5 / AP / BCN) — The nation needs new solutions to improve the safety of natural gas pipelines coursing beneath neighborhoods, federal investigators said Thursday as a three-day hearing on last year’s deadly blast in San Bruno drew to a close.
Dozens of industry officials, regulators and safety advocates testified before the National Transportation Safety Board as part of this week’s hearing, which examined what led to the September explosion that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes.
Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the accident highlighted a pattern of recurring safety problems and said the regulations guiding the industry may require reforms.
“There aren’t any new problems, what we need is new solutions,” she said. “Many of these issues are fields that have been plowed before.”
The network of natural gas lines includes many decades-old pipes that are not subject to a higher level of inspections or safety standards, Hersman said.
The large, high-pressure transmission pipeline that burst in California last fall was installed in 1956. An NTSB examination after the accident revealed it had a seam and inferior welds. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. records had inaccurately identified the pipe as being seamless, which is considered to be safer.
The line also was not equipped with remotely operated or automatic shut-off valves, which would have halted the gas flow within minutes of the accident and lessened the force of the blaze engulfing the subdivision. Instead, it took utility crews nearly an hour and a half to reach the line’s manual valves to shut off the gas.
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said Thursday the company plans to install automatic shut-off or remotely controlled valves on several transmission lines running between Milpitas and San Francisco, as part of a pilot program this year.
Molica estimated each valve would cost between $100,000 to $1.5 million.
PG&E also announced Thursday it would supply the public with more information about the location of its gas pipelines by meeting with fire departments within its service area and mailing letters to its customers who live near transmission lines.
“We’ve begun extensive outreach to first responders throughout our service area,” Molica said. “We’re committed to actively learning and benchmarking our practices as this investigation progresses.”
PG&E also announced it plans to mail a separate safety letter to all its customers who live or work within 2,000 feet of one of its pipelines.
“People have a right to know,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said in a statement. “These letters will go a long way toward increasing awareness about the existence of pipelines and empowering PG&E customers with critical safety information.”
The provision to inform customers living near gas lines is included in legislation that Speier introduced in January in response to the San Bruno tragedy.
Speier’s bill, HR22, also mandates that remotely controlled or automatic shutoff valves be installed on pipelines that lie near earthquake faults or in densely populated “high consequence” areas.
It is widely believed that automatic shutoff valves would have decreased the time it took PG&E to stop the flow of natural gas through the line that ruptured in San Bruno, which was shut off manually 80 minutes after the explosion.
“PG&E’s commitment to move forward with more automatic and remote shutoff valves will help limit potential damage in the event of another disaster,” Speier said.
PG&E has identified 300 locations on its 6,000-mile gas transmission system where automatic valves could be installed, Molica said.
Hersman said at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing that the agency plans to complete its investigation into the cause of the San Bruno blast within six months. “The NTSB is committed to finding out why this accident happened,”
Hersman said. “The information will result in some of the attendees to taking action before this investigation is over.”
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