The San Mateo County Times
By Pete Carey
WASHINGTON -- With only 500 state and federal pipeline inspectors to oversee the operation of the nation's vast and aging gas pipeline system, a federal safety board grappled Wednesday with how to prevent another disaster like the San Bruno pipeline rupture that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes last September.
"That's only 10 people per state," observed National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, presiding over the second day of a three-day NTSB fact-finding hearing into the PG&E pipeline explosion.
Hersman asked federal regulators how they could "look over everyone's" shoulders with 200 inspectors -- the remaining 300 work for states -- to make sure operators are doing everything properly.
The short answer, according to an official with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is that it's primarily the pipeline operator's responsibility to run a safe system.
But in reviewing state utility plans, "we do learn some triggers and red flags,'' said Linda Daughtery, a PHMSA program administrator.
The agency in recent years has moved to a new performance based system to evaluate safety procedures at utilities. That system can be more tailored to the operations of individual companies.
Daugherty said there's been resistance to the newer method from some of PHMSA's inspectors, because it requires judgment calls. "We believe it's effective, but we have had challenges in convincing our own work force that it's the right way to go,'' she said.
The federal agency does not directly regulate PG&E, but supplies the California Public Utility Commisson with about two thirds of the money that it uses for its inspection program.
PHMSA also evaluates the performance of state regulators and has given the CPUC scores in the low 90s on a scale of 100, according to another PHMSA official.
That is lower than most other state regulators which score in the high 90s, said Zach Barrett, director of state programs with the federal pipeline agency,which regulates interstate pipelines. The reason, he said, is that the PUC does not have total jurisdiction over every pipeline in California.
Richard Clark, director of the PUC's consumer protection and safety division, said he has 20 people assigned to monitor the state's extensive network of transmission and distribution lines.
Earlier in the hearing Wednesday, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said he never knew that a gas transmission pipeline ran through a residential neighborhood in his city until it blew up Sept. 9.
"The situation on Sept. 9 wasn't something we could ever imagine," he said.
Haag said he had not talked to PG&E about the pipeline, although department personnel had attended PG&E training sessions. He said that when he was a fire fighter he was told by utility maintence people that a transmission line ran up Highway 101 and another along Interstate 280. But Haag also admitted that he had never consulted a national pipeline mapping system available to public safety personnel. 'We definitely could have done that, but we did not," Haag said.
The morning sesion focused on public awareness of the gas lines that criss-cross the nation's communities, and the message was that more awareness is needed, and that gas line operators need to do more to get the word out. But it's a two-way street -- the public and emergency responders need to bone up on safety too, the safety board was told.
Current methods -- such as mailers to customers -- aren't working that well, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.
PG&E conceded that a survey of customers living near pipeline rights of way that asked about safety issues was sent to 15,000 people but received a mere 20 responses.
"You've got a serious problem" with such a miniscule response, said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman.
Rep. Jackie Speier, whose district covers San Bruno and who is attending the hearings, called the response "an abject failure" in an impromptu press briefing after the morning session. Sending safety related information in utility bills is like asking it to be treated as junk mail, she said "I'm like everyone who pays a bill . . . you throw away everything peripheral and write the check."
Aaron Rezendez, PG&E safety, health and claims program manager, called the response "unacceptable to us.'' Company officials "asked the question, what are we doing wrong?'' he said, calling the survey "a real learning opportunity.''
Some materials -- such as a national pipeline map that can be accessed through secure sites by emergency personnel -- are not well known despite recent industry efforts to get the word out, experts testified.
Weimer, of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said that the materials on safety that utilities like PG&E mail out need revising.
"You have to wade through a couple of pages" of a PG&E mailer describing natural gas as the safest choice before the message, Weimer said. 'We need a different lead-in."
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