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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feds Say San Bruno Explosion Is PG&E's Fault

Posted By on Tue, Aug 30, 2011 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge PG&E was too relaxed
  • PG&E was too relaxed
PG&E's lax safety protocol and poor record-keeping were among the chief causes of the San Bruno pipeline accident last September, the five-member National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday in Washington.

The board's findings were the result of a year-long investigation into the causes leading up to the rupture of the pipeline that was laid in the 1950s. NTSB also ruled that a San Bruno city-funded sewage repair project did not have an effect on the pipeline as PG&E had previously claimed.

It's been a slow process unearthing details of the explosion, including who laid the actual pipe and who missed the telltale signs of weakness during inspection.

But it looks like deep change in PG&E and other entities to avoid another San Bruno may be even slower.

NTSB issued 10 safety recommendations (six of which were "urgent") during the investigation and 29 more during today's hearing, but they don't include a time frame for completion nor can NTSB enforce any noncompliance issues.

"We're not a regulatory agency so our recommendations are based on the credibility of our investigations," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. "We have a department whose sole purpose is to advocate for the adoption of these recommendations."

NTSB and organizations that received recommendations will begin a dialogue in which they discuss best ways to comply -- and Knudson says 80 percent of NTSB's recommendations are eventually deemed acceptable.

If PG&E, for example, doesn't update its safety or inspection protocol as recommended?

"We don't have that kind of enforcement," Knudson said.

PG&E president Chris Johns said in a statement after the NTSB hearing that the company is "grateful" for NTSB's investigation and findings.

"We fully embrace the recommendations of the NTSB and will incorporate them into our plans," the statement read. "Although we still have much to learn and do, we have already taken many immediate and long-term steps to promote safety." The statement continues on to detail those immediate and long-term steps, also found here, including the recent hiring of a new CEO.

Throughout Tuesday's hearings, NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman stressed the role that PG&E's weak safety inspection infrastructure as well as a lack of oversight from government entities such as the California Public Utilities Commission and the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

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

A spike in pipe pressure because of a power outage on September 9, 2010, caused the pipeline to explode at a weak point: a poorly welded shorter piece of pipeline called a "pup." Eight people died and dozens of homes burned as PG&E floundered to direct emergency services in an effective way.

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Ellen Huet

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