NTSB Rips PG&E, CPUC a New One Over San Bruno Explosion

The National Transportation Safety Board tore into the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) yesterday, citing decades of mismanagement as the probable cause of the massive natural gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood in San Bruno, CA, on Sept. 9, 2010.

NTSB Chairperson Deborah Hersman also called out the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency ostensibly charged with overseeing PG&E’s pipeline safety efforts, for failing to adequately police the utility.

“Our investigation revealed that for years, PG&E exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight,” Hersman said in a prepared statement. “We also identified regulators that placed a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing to the detriment of public safety.”

Hersman also pointed to a pair of regulatory decisions — a 1961 ruling by the CPUC and a 1970 determination by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material and Safety Administration (PHMSA) — that exempted older pipelines from newer, more rigorous testing that would have detected the defective welds, as contributing factors in the natural gas explosion that devastated the small town just south of San Francisco.

In connection with the report, the NTSB issued no fewer than 29 recommendations to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, PHMSA, California Gov. Jerry Brown, the CPUC, PG&E and a pair of natural gas industry trade associations. These recommendations include a variety of audits and re-evaluations of existing inspection and emergency procedures, as well as specific directives, such as expediting the installation of automatic shut-off valves to cut the flow of natural gas in event of an emergency.

The report notes that it took PG&E 95 minutes to shut off the flow of gas to the ruptured pipeline — “a response time that was excessively long and contributed to the extent and severity of property damage and increased the life-threatening risks to the residents and emergency responders,” the report states.

In response to the NTSB report, CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said his agency welcomes the recommendations, and that the CPUC will closely monitor PG&E in the future.

“We will conduct an audit of PG&E’s Integrity Management Program and ensure that PG&E corrects any deficiencies that led to the rupture,” Clanon said. “We will also ensure that PG&E’s emergency response plans and procedures are greatly improved.  We have ordered the utilities to test or replace all grandfathered pipes and are evaluating utility implementation plans that include valve automation and retrofitting pipelines to accommodate inline inspection tools. We will evaluate the NTSB’s PG&E-specific recommendations to determine whether we need to adopt rules to enforce the recommendations as part of our ongoing proceeding to set new rules for natural gas safety.  We also expect by the end of the year to adopt a citation program that gives CPUC staff the ability to fine natural gas operators immediately if a violation is found.”

Clanon also said that the CPUC plans to release the results of its own investigation into possible PG&E wrongdoing in connection with the San Bruno explosion. That report, he said, could “lead to significant fines and other sanctions.”

Source: Natural Gas Watch.org

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