Invest Now or Pay Later – Lessons Learned from San Bruno

By Mark R. Rosekind

This week at the eighth annual Pipeline Opportunities Conference in Houston, I gave the keynote presentation on the lessons learned from the PG&E/San Bruno pipeline explosion. Sponsored by Pipeline & Gas Journal in partnership with the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, it is the only gathering of its kind that focuses on pipeline projects worldwide. It presented a prime opportunity to discuss the Board’s recommendations and actions needed for the safe operation of the nation’s aging pipeline infrastructure.

On September 9, 2010, a 54 year-old segment of an intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric Company burst and released over 47 million cubic feet of natural gas. The accident and resulting fire happened in a residential neighborhood killing eight people and injuring 58. Thirty-eight homes were destroyed and 70 were damaged with hundreds of residents displaced from the community. The explosion created an enormous crater and the 3,000-pound, ruptured section of pipeline was catapulted 100 feet away.

The NTSB found that substandard welds and other problems dating to the 1956 installation of the line was the probable cause of the accident. The aging underground infrastructure coupled with inadequate testing allowed the flaws to go undetected for decades. Systemic safety problems including a lack of automatic shut-off valves, and an insufficient emergency response plan contributed to the severity of the situation; it took 95 minutes to shut off the gas flow. The NTSB made 39 safety recommendations as a result of the accident.

What happened in San Bruno highlighted a deadly combination of factors that resulted in tragedy, but the lessons learned from this disaster need to change the pipeline safety landscape across the country. With half of America’s gas transmission lines – roughly 150,000 miles – built prior to 1970, the aging infrastructure problems leading to the 2010 accident remain. The national response to implementing top-notch integrity management programs to detect and repair aging and defective pipelines needs to move faster and be more coordinated. This includes some of the NTSB’s most basic safety recommendations emanating from the PG&E/San Bruno accident; such as the installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves to control the flow of gas should a problem occur.
As infrastructure of every type grows old from coast to coast, scrupulous record-keeping and regular testing is a must. Just as critical, meaningful improvements to pipeline safety culture need to move from reactive to proactive and rise above simply complying with the basic minimum standards of regulation. Without significant changes, the potential loss of life, injuries, and environmental damage resulting from delays and inaction is immeasurable. The lessons learned from the PG&E/San Bruno accident provide an opportunity to enhance pipeline safety across our nation.

Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D. was sworn in as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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