Improving Pipeline Safety

By Debbie Hersman

This morning, NTSB Board Member Mark Rosekind and I visited the neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., where a natural gas pipeline ruptured on Sept. 9, 2010.  The released natural gas ignited and resulted in a massive fire. Eight people died, ten more were injured, and 38 homes were destroyed.

Chairman Hersman (in red), Congresswoman Speier (in blue) and Member Rosekind (second from right) visit the accident site.

Our team is working hard to complete the investigation and present their final report at a board meeting prior to the one-year anniversary of the accident.  Because thorough investigations of major accidents like the one in San Bruno can take a year or more to accomplish, the NTSB does not always wait until it completes investigations to issue safety recommendations.  In fact, last January, we issued urgent safety recommendations to ensure that the records, surveys, and documents for all pipeline systems accurately reflect the infrastructure.  Further, we issued recommendations addressing the need for hydrostatic testing to detemine safe operating pressures on lines without accurate records.

Today, the NTSB is issuing three additional safety recommendations — two to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and one to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).  These new recommendations focus on informing emergency response agencies about pipeline locations and important operating information in advance and notifying emergency responders promptly when a leak is detected.  We heard loudly and clearly at our March fact-finding hearing that many local officials in San Bruno did not know that transmission lines ran through the middle of neighborhoods.

Implementing these recommendations will help assure a timelier and more appropriate response to accidents in the future.

This visit to San Bruno has been a poignant reminder that our role — and our commitment — at the NTSB is to do everything we can to make sure a tragedy like this one, and the devastating losses it caused, never happens again.

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