Better pipeline safety emerges from San Bruno ashes
San Francisco Chronicle
By Jackie Speier
The pain, anger and scars from the San Bruno pipeline tragedy linger. But answers and solutions are emerging from the ashes, although last week's PG&E gas explosion in Cupertino has put an uneasy edge on progress.
I have been as tough as any critic of PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission - they failed the public miserably and must take responsibility for this tragedy.
At the same time, it is important for the public to be told that significant reforms have been implemented and more are planned. These reforms could, if properly carried out and reinforced over time, create a safety gold standard for the rest of the country.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued 38 safety recommendations during its nearly yearlong investigation of the rupture that killed eight people, left five survivors severely burned and destroyed 38 homes. And PG&E has submitted to the CPUC a plan that addresses needed reforms, but the cost is high: $1.9 billion. The CPUC has to approve the expenditures, and I and other consumer advocates will push to have PG&E shareholders foot a larger portion of the proposed costs and to have PG&E reduce its expenses through use of new technologies.
The first priority must be to end the testing exemption for pipelines similar to the one that ruptured in San Bruno. State rules had allowed pipelines installed prior to 1960 to be operated without ever being pressure tested after installation. On the federal level, the exemption covers pipelines put in prior to 1970. The NTSB was firm in stating that the San Bruno pipeline installed in 1956 would have failed a pressure test at that time. Fortunately, the CPUC has ordered untested pipes to be tested. The exemption must be lifted nationally for the 150,000 miles of pipeline that have never been pressure tested in the field.
PG&E has agreed to use shareholder funds to pay for testing 152 miles of pipeline, but wants approval for $400 million in ratepayer monies to test another 550 miles by 2014. Ratepayers have already paid for a safe system. If the system's safety is in doubt, shareholders should pay to erase that doubt.
PG&E has agreed to install more than 200 remote shut-off valves on its lines. PG&E took longer than 90 minutes to turn off the gas in the San Bruno fire. A remote shut-off valve would have done the job in minutes. But at $250,000 to $500,000 per valve, the cost of safety is high. PG&E assured me that it would install 12 remote shut-off valves at its own expense. I, in turn, have asked the utility to consider a newly patented, automatic shut-off valve that may cost one-tenth of what PG&E intends to spend on a remote valve. Another key area of reform involves using electric devices to detect natural gas leaks and pipeline flaws.
The CPUC must be diligent in determining what new technologies exist to help PG&E cut its operational costs while increasing safety. It is time for the natural gas industry to learn from what the NTSB termed PG&E's "organizational accident."
It is time for Congress to stop enabling operators to make safety an afterthought in the name of profit. It is time to put the safety of the American people first; otherwise, another community will suffer the same fate and we will have learned nothing.
Jackie Speier represents San Mateo and San Francisco counties in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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