Jackie in the News
One year after San Bruno blast: Preparing for worst in pipe system
San Francisco Examiner
By Katie Worth
Flames were ruthlessly devouring a neighborhood for more than half an hour before the fire chief in charge of fighting them, Dennis Haag, concluded they had not been ignited by an airplane.
One might imagine he knew that because PG&E had finally informed emergency personnel that a natural gas pipeline ran through that very neighborhood, and it had blown up.
But no. Instead, Haag figured it out because the local airports had managed to account for all of their planes, and by deductive reasoning, he knew it must be something else.
One also might imagine that once it did become obvious the flames were being fueled by a 30-inch hose of combustible gas, PG&E would be on the case to turn that hose off.
But it took fully 95 minutes for the pipeline valves to be closed. PG&E had sent out someone to turn it off, but that person lacked the training or the tools to do so. They sent out another crew, but they got stuck in a crushing traffic jam.
Finally, an off-duty employee took it upon himself to go to the valves and turn them off, and within moments the worst of the firebomb subsided.
Everyone agrees this should never have happened, and should never be allowed to happen again. So federal investigators have recommended imposing regulations requiring the obvious: that a utility should provide emergency responders with information about the location, size and status of a pipeline in its area — and should immediately notify first responders if they believe a pipe has ruptured.
Federal investigators and Rep. Jackie Speier, whose district includes San Bruno, have advocated that pipeline operators be required to install automatic or remote-controlled valves on their lines, so they could be turned off as soon as a pipeline ruptures, rather than depending on a human to reach them. A law being drafted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee does not go nearly that far, but would require them to be installed on all new pipelines that travel through populated areas.
Within months of last year’s tragic accident, PG&E installed remotely controlled shutoff valves at two stations in San Bruno. PG&E officials have agreed to install the valves throughout the system, regardless of whether the government mandates doing so. This commitment comes at considerable expense: Each valve costs about $750,000 to install — about $225 million for the 300 manual valves it plans to replace. But even this solution would be imperfect: Remote-controlled valves may not have saved lives in San Bruno, as some industry experts say most deaths occur in the first flash of an explosion. However, dozens fewer homes would likely have been destroyed.
PG&E has also had a change of heart about informing pipeline operators precisely where the lines are located.
Before San Bruno — and several weeks afterward — PG&E point-blank refused to provide the public with information about where their pipelines are, what size they are, or the condition they are in. The company repeatedly cited concerns about terrorists: Bad guys could get ahold of the information and use it to sabotage America’s infrastructure, they theorized.
Today, the utility has sent out letters to every person who lives within 2,000 feet of a pipeline, and they have created a detailed map of the locations of their transmission lines. And San Francisco’s firefighters are participating in a pilot program where their mobile data terminals show them exactly what is underground.
Haag noted that the response to the fire would not have been appreciably different had they known from the start it was a pipeline explosion, though it would have cut through considerable confusion and focused efforts.
“If we knew it was a gas line, we certainly would have sought out PG&E management staff earlier,” he said. “We would have had a better idea of what to expect.”
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