In the wake of the terrifying explosion and fire that incinerated a large swath of San Bruno
, the key questions may yet be: "What did PG&E know and when did they know it?"
In the weeks preceding the detonation of a ruptured PG&E pipe, neighborhood residents claim the smell of gas pervaded the area; one man told news reporters that a gas odor was emanating from the sewers.
It's far too early to jump to definitive conclusions. But it warrants mentioning that, in an eerily similar situation, PG&E was ripped by federal investigators for a slow and faulty response to a ruptured subterranean natural gas pipe -- which led to an explosion, fire, and death.
The incident in question took place in the Sacramento-area town of Rancho Cordova on Christmas Eve of 2008. It would turn out to be a very sad Christmas for the residents of that neighborhood, however.
According to the resultant investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board -- which you can read here
-- PG&E was at fault not only for its malfunctioning piping but for a nearly three-hour delay in investigating the gas leak -- and failing to properly evacuate the neighborhood.
While the homeowner called PG&E at just after 9 in the morning, myriad delays led to personnel not being able to begin probing for the leak until 1:35 in the afternoon. At that time, the house exploded, killing its owner, injuring five others -- including a firefighter and utility employee -- and damaging two adjacent homes.
"This accident illuminates shortcomings in PG&E's response procedures," says the NTSB report. "First, at the time of the accident, PG&E did not require any of the responders to periodically check in with their dispatch offices to communicate delays in responding. Second, PG&E sent technicians as the first responders to leak complaints. These technicians were not trained in grading outdoor leaks nor equipped with the equipment required to do so ... A technician who encountered an outdoor leak was required to call Dispatch and have a leak inspector sent to grade the leak.
"Third, technicians responding to odor and/or leak complaints did not have barrier tape or notices that could be used to warn an absent homeowner that the house was dangerous because of leaking gas and not to enter the house."
A California Public Utilities Commission investigation also faulted PG&E for delays in the face of emergency. "The process ... wherein events requiring immediate attention are identified and classified by persons not qualified to make such decisions, has the real potential to prevent or delay qualified personnel from timely responding to, and correcting what can be, very hazardous conditions."
According to the NTSB report, PG&E promised it would reevaluate and update its faulty procedures. It remains to be seen whether the utility giant adhered to its own rules in San Bruno -- or whether doing so would have prevented the recent destruction and loss of life.
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