Learning From the Past

By Debbie Hersman

San Bruno pipelineTwo years ago today, Sept. 9, 2010, during the early evening hours in San Bruno, California, a quiet neighborhood just south of San Francisco, a natural gas pipeline burst out of the ground, igniting a tower of flames that burned like a giant blowtorch for more than an hour. When the flames were finally extinguished, eight people had lost their lives and many more were injured; 38 homes were destroyed and 70 more were damaged.

Our intensive year-long investigation revealed a faulty pipeline installed more than 50 years before the accident. But despite numerous opportunities, the operator, PG&E, failed to detect the damaged pipeline before it failed and tragically altered so many lives.

Out of that investigation, we issued 40 safety recommendations; eight of which have been resolved and of the remaining 30+, work is in progress. Our goal is not only to see that all of our recommendations are adopted, but also to have the entire pipeline industry learn from the safety issues identified in the San Bruno accident – the importance of accurate records for operations, maintenance and repairs; comprehensive emergency response planning; and integrity management programs that are animated by the spirit rather than just the letter of the regulations.

While much has changed in San Bruno, what is more encouraging is that many operators in the pipeline industry have followed this investigation closely and have taken to heart the lessons learned from the San Bruno tragedy. However, safety concerns still remain – today, half of the nation’s pipelines were installed before 1970 and were not subjected to the same rigorous testing that we see in newer pipelines. We’ll continue to push for mandates requiring better testing for those older pipelines so an accident like the one that occurred in San Bruno is never repeated.

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