Category Archives: Pipeline

San Bruno Victims and Their Families Deserve Long-Overdue Action

By Member Jennifer Homendy

Today marks 10 years since the devastating natural gas pipeline rupture that shattered a residential neighborhood in San Bruno, California. The September 9, 2010, explosion destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 others. Even worse, 8 people were killed, 10 people sustained serious injuries, and many others suffered minor injuries.

The Accident

When I think of San Bruno, I struggle with the ‘right’ words to describe the horrific events that unfolded shortly after 6:00 p.m.—a time when many families across our nation are just sitting down for dinner.

In the moments after the rupture, calls flooded into 911, with reports of what many thought was a plane crash, a gas station explosion, or some combination of the two. One caller said it felt like an earthquake, and a fire captain who was on scene said, “It looked like Armageddon.” In fact, the rupture was so explosive that it produced a crater about 72 feet long by 26 feet wide and launched a 28-foot section of failed pipe about 100 feet south of the crater. The released gas almost immediately ignited. Emergency responders arrived within minutes to battle the ensuing inferno, yet it took Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) an astonishing 95 minutes to shut off the flow of gas that was intensifying the destruction. Firefighting efforts continued for 2 days, with 600 firefighters and 325 law enforcement personnel on scene.  

San Bruno, CA, accident scene with the crater in the foreground and the ruptured pipe section in the background
San Bruno, CA, accident scene with the crater in the foreground and the ruptured pipe section in the background

NTSB Warnings

I’m not going to get into the numerous failures at PG&E that led to the rupture. I want to focus on those 95 minutes. In December 1970, the NTSB released a Special Study of Effects of Delay in Shutting Down Failed Pipeline Systems and Methods of Providing Rapid Shutdown. You read that right—1970. We found that delays in shutting down pipelines increase the magnitude of catastrophe, and that, when the flow of gas or hazardous liquid is stopped soon after an initial rupture, the effects of many accidents would have been minimized or eliminated. In other words, numerous lives could’ve been saved, and injuries prevented.

Our report highlighted the 1968 rupture of a medium-pressure gas line in front of a daycare in Hapeville, Georgia. Construction crews on scene were unable to locate the buried valve to shut off the gas flow. A few minutes later, an explosion occurred inside the daycare. The ensuing fire engulfed the building and nine people were killed, including seven children. Three other children were seriously injured.

Nine other incidents—all involving failures to shut down pipelines—were cited in the report, and many more have occurred since it was published. The common theme? What we said in 1970 held true in San Bruno and holds true today: “For every one of the accidents cited, there are devices or equipment currently available which probably could have prevented the accident or greatly minimized its effect.”

We’ve been urging federal regulators to require those devices for 50 years! In fact, they’re still on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

The San Bruno Investigation

Getting back to San Bruno. In those crucial 95 minutes during which the gas continued to flow, PG&E control center staff knew there had been a rupture along the pipeline, but never once called 911. The three PG&E employees who first arrived on scene, two of whom were supervisors, had no idea how to operate mainline valves. They had to call people who were qualified to operate them, and by the time those mechanics located the valves and got to the first one, it was 7:20 p.m., over an hour after the rupture occurred. Meanwhile, the fire, described by NTSB investigators as a massive blowtorch, was still raging.

Because gas was being supplied to the break from both the north and the south, the shutoff valves closest to the break had to be closed to shut down and isolate the rupture. The shutoff valves were located about 1.5 miles apart, on either end of the break, and they had to be shut manually. Had PG&E installed readily available technology—valves with remote closure capability or ones that would automatically shut off the gas flow in response to pressure changes in the line—the amount of time the fire burned, and thus, the severity of the accident, could’ve been significantly reduced. In fact, this technology could’ve stopped the flow of gas the moment the rupture was detected.

In our final report on the accident, we recommended that federal regulators—the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—require  pipeline companies to install automatic shutoff valves or remote shutoff valves in High Consequence Areas (defined as populated areas, drinking water sources, and unusually sensitive ecological areas).

PHMSA’s Response

On February 6, 2020, PHMSA published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), “Pipeline Safety: Valve Installation and Minimum Rupture Detection Standards,” claiming the NPRM responds to recommendations from the NTSB. It doesn’t. It requires automatic shutoff valves, remote-control valves, or equivalent technology to be installed only on newly constructed or entirely replaced onshore natural gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines that are larger than 6 inches in diameter.

Remember the daycare accident I mentioned? The pipeline that ruptured in that tragedy was only 1 inch in diameter. Existing gas transmission lines (like the PG&E line that ruptured in San Bruno), newly constructed or entirely replaced lines that are less than 6 inches in diameter, gas distribution systems, and offshore transmission lines are completely excluded from the NPRM’s requirements.

In other words, PHMSA’s solution won’t prevent another San Bruno disaster. Given that there are 2.6 million miles of gas pipelines in the United States, most of which date back to the 1950s and the NPRM doesn’t address any of them. With those numbers, another tragic accident is destined to occur, and if I’m the member on scene—or even if I’m not—I’ll remind PHMSA and industry, yet again, of all the ruptures we’ve investigated and all the opportunities they had to save lives.

To all those who lost loved ones in San Bruno or in another pipeline tragedy, you remain in our hearts. We are still fighting for you.

Remembering Marshall, Michigan

By Member Jennifer Homendy

This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of one of the largest and most expensive inland oil spills in our nation’s history.

At 5:58 p.m. on July 25, 2010, a 30-inch diameter pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge ruptured, releasing nearly a million gallons of heavy crude oil into Talmadge Creek, which feeds into the Kalamazoo River – a tributary of Lake Michigan – and flowed about 35 miles downstream before it was contained.

Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Rupture and Release, Marshall, Michigan, July 25, 2010
The ruptured segment of Line 6B in the trench following the July 25, 2010, rupture. The fracture face measured about 6 feet 8.25 inches long and was 5.32 inches wide at the widest opening. The fracture ran just below the seam weld that was oriented just below the 3 o’clock position. A red circle shows a location where the coating was wrinkled and had separated from the pipe surface.

Although numerous alarms were triggered in Enbridge’s control center, located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, control center staff failed to recognize a rupture occurred for well over 17 hours, until an outside caller contacted the control center. Enbridge attributed the alarms to an earlier planned shutdown and column separation (a vapor-liquid void), and instead re-started the line twice for a period of 1.5 hours, pumping massive amounts of oil (81 percent of the total release, or over 600,000 additional gallons) into the pipeline. Once Enbridge realized there was a release, it was too little too late. Enbridge had only four maintenance personnel on scene; the closest trained responders – their oil spill response contractors – were 10 hours away.

At the time, I served as the Democratic Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials for the U.S. House of Representatives, which had jurisdiction over the safety of oil and gas pipelines in the United States. About 24 hours after the rupture, the Chairman of the Committee, Congressman Jim Oberstar, and Congressman Mark Schauer who represented Marshall, Michigan, asked that I travel to Marshall and lead the Committee’s oversight investigation of the spill, which is different than an NTSB investigation (for example, we looked at claims and HIPAA violations).

I wish I had the right words to describe what it was like when we arrived in Marshall. Utter devastation doesn’t seem to do it justice. Oil blanketed the creek and river, the river’s banks, and flood plains, severely impacting the environment. Rescue and rehabilitation efforts for oiled birds and wildlife continued for months; river restoration went on for years. Clean-up costs totaled $1.2 billion, and Enbridge received the largest civil penalty for a Clean Water Act violation in U.S. history, and the second-largest penalty overall, after Deepwater Horizon.

July 25, 2010, Marshall, Michigan pipeline rupture
Cleanup efforts in an oil-soaked wetland near the rupture site. Saturated soil complicated the cleanup and excavation efforts. An excavator with a vacuum attachment is shown situated on wooden matting near the rupture site.

While, thankfully, no lives were lost, people lost homes and businesses, as well as income, and about 320 residents suffered symptoms consistent with exposure to crude oil.

Perhaps the most memorable moments for me were with the residents in Baker Estates in Battle Creek, Michigan, a community of about 70 mobile homes right along the river. I walked the oil-saturated river banks with them and was invited into their homes to hear about financial and medical impacts of the spill. See, no one evacuated the mobile home park. In fact, no one evacuated anyone along the river. County health officials issued a voluntary notice for homeowners to self-evacuate, which was noted in the NTSB accident report.

Meanwhile, NTSB’s investigation focused on the cause of the rupture and the oil spill response. NTSB’s former chairman Debbie Hersman was on scene. I ran into her and Peter Knudson, who is still a crucial part of NTSB’s media relations team, eating dinner one night in Marshall. Who knew we’d one day work together at the agency?

Through the investigation, the NTSB identified numerous gaps in Enbridge’s integrity management program, control room operations, training, and leak detection. To address the multitude of deficiencies, NTSB recommended that the pipeline industry develop an industry standard for a comprehensive safety management system (SMS) specific to pipelines.

Years later, I’m pleased to say that the industry didn’t just meet the intent of our recommendation; they exceeded it with the development of API Recommended Practice 1173, which also focused on safety culture and other safety-related issues. Since then, many pipeline operators have adopted and implemented the standard. The NTSB is working to encourage others, from the largest pipeline operators to the smallest municipalities, to implement SMS.

NTSB’s oil spill response investigation identified issues with the advance preparation and execution of the response that could be traced to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) regulations implementing the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 1990.

The PHMSA-approved Enbridge facility response plan did not provide for sufficient resources to deal with an oil spill of this magnitude. Furthermore, the NTSB investigation found that the severity of the oil spill could have been minimized had Enbridge focused more on source control and used oil containment methods that were appropriate for the environmental conditions. In response to NTSB recommendations, PHMSA undertook an effort to update the regulations and harmonize them with U.S. Coast Guard regulations for oil spills in navigable waterways.

Overall, there were a lot of safety gaps identified because of the Marshall spill. The NTSB’s work and the Committee’s oversight investigation led to a series of hearings that culminated in passage of sweeping legislation in 2011, which is still being implemented, albeit slowly, a decade later.

But looking back, a decade later, well after our investigators have left the scene, our final report has been issued, and recommendations are being acted upon, I think about the residents of Baker Estates and the other communities and business owners that suffered tremendous losses. For them, the work is just beginning, and Marshall will never be forgotten.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten because when the industry fails to learn from previous accident investigations and fails to make necessary changes, those accidents and the underlying issues that caused them are destined to repeat themselves.

In fact, as I sat down to write this blog, I recalled our 2005 safety study on Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) in pipelines. SCADA systems are essentially a computer system that allows control center staff to monitor and control the pipeline from a remote location. The study was prompted by 12 hazardous liquid accidents investigated by the NTSB in which leaks went undetected after indications of a leak were provided on the SCADA system: Brenham, Texas (1992), Gramercy, Louisiana (1996), Fork Shoals, South Carolina (1996), Murfreesboro, Tennessee (1996), Knoxville, Tennessee (1999), Bellingham, Washington (1999), Winchester, Kentucky (2000), Greenville, Texas (2000), Chalk Point, Maryland (2000), and Kingman, Kansas (2004).

Fork Shoals was eerily similar to Marshall. The pipeline owned and operated by Colonial Pipeline ruptured, releasing nearly one million gallons of fuel oil into the Reedy River and surrounding areas at Fork Shoals. Like Marshall, the SCADA alarms and alarm messages had activated, and the controller acknowledged them, but he failed to recognize that a rupture had occurred and continued pumping more and more fuel oil into the line after several shutdowns and re-starts. And like Enbridge, Colonial knew of the corrosion in the line in the months leading up to the rupture.

If you’re on the fence on SMS, I hope this prompts you to take heed and not wait for a rupture to occur to act.

 

NTSB Office of Rail, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations Director, Rob Hall, contributed to the writing of this blog.

Ensuring Transportation Safety, Even During a Crisis

By Member Jennifer L. Homendy

For the past few weeks, I’ve woken up every morning to a text message from the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) updating riders on its continued service and modified schedule. It’s hard not to think of all the VRE and Amtrak locomotive engineers and conductors that I’ve come to recognize (or know by name—Hi, Willie and Samantha!) over the years, and how dedicated they are to continuing to serve the public during this national emergency. You and your colleagues across the country are heroes. Thank you for all you do.

The safety of transportation workers across all modes is extremely important especially during times of crisis. Our nation’s transportation workforce is essential to getting critical goods to states and local communities and to ensuring that those serving on the frontlines of this pandemic, like medical personnel, grocery store employees, and other essential personnel, are able to continue the fight against COVID-19. Without all of them, we’d be in a much more dire situation. Still, we need to make sure that the transportation workers who are putting their lives at risk daily to make deliveries or get people to work are also safe. That not only means providing them with necessary personal protective gear, but also ensuring any regulatory waivers do not jeopardize their safety or the safety of others.

Since the start of this national emergency, many transportation entities facing staffing shortages due to illness and the need to quarantine have requested emergency relief from certain safety regulations. These entities cite concerns about their ability to deliver critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare while meeting regulatory requirements for inspections, training, and maintenance, to name a few. Although regulatory relief from certain requirements may be necessary during this difficult time, I urge the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to carefully review each request and put measures in place to ensure that the safety of transportation workers, and all others who must travel, remains a priority.

We are all being challenged in ways that we could not have imagined a month ago. People are staying safe by traveling only when absolutely necessary and maintaining a safe social distance from others. Those in the transportation industry are also doing what they can to stay safe while continuing to do the important work of moving the people and goods that keep our nation pushing forward during this crisis.

It’s important that any regulatory relief the DOT determines is appropriate is only temporary. This crisis can seem overwhelming, but as a nation, we will prevail. It’s important that when our lives start to take the path back to “normal,” safety regulations—many of which the NTSB has long advocated for following tragic crashes—are reinstituted. Temporary measures to address a crisis should not become the new normal. An efficient transportation network is key to our nation’s success during this challenging time, but we must not forget the importance of ensuring the safety of transportation workers and the traveling public both now and in the future.

A Tribute to NTSB Employees

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

What do you get when you cross a transportation-related life-saving mission with some of the best people in the federal government?

 The National Transportation Safety Board, of course!

 And that is no April Fool’s joke.

 On this day 53 years ago, the NTSB was formed by an act of Congress. The agency’s mission is to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, determine their probable causes, and issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, we conduct special studies concerning transportation safety, and we coordinate the resources of the federal government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters. We also adjudicate appeals from civil enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Coast Guard.

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Since 1967, the NTSB has investigated more than 149,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. We’ve issued more than 15,000 safety recommendations—the vast majority of which ultimately are implemented. Some of the safety measures that have arisen, at least in part, from our safety recommendations include:

Aviation

  • Floor-level escape lighting, fire-blocking seat coverings, lavatory smoke detectors, stronger cabin seats
  • Terrain avoidance and warning systems requirements
  • Inert gas use to eliminate fuel tank explosions
  • Shoulder harnesses in general aviation

Highway

  • Raising the legal drinking age to 21 and .05 percent BAC drinking and driving laws
  • Child passenger safety
  • Enforcement of commercial vehicle regulations

Marine

  • Boating-while-intoxicated laws
  • Cruise ship fire safety
  • Emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) on vessels

Railroad & Rail Transit

  • Positive train control
  • Passenger rail car safety standards
  • Toll-free emergency number posting at grade crossings
  • Tank car enhancements

Pipeline

  • One-call systems before excavation (“Call 811 Before You Dig”)
  • Integrity management programs
  • Facility response plan effectiveness and oversight

HAZMAT

  • Hazard communications training for first responders, community planning, and preparedness

I’m often reminded that you can have an important mission, but if you don’t have devoted, talented employees, you really don’t have a great agency. Fortunately, the NTSB has both.

Our mission generates dedication, which often translates to retention; some of our longest-serving employees have been at the agency for over 40 years. But don’t misinterpret that longevity as complacency. In the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, of the 70% of NTSB employees who completed the survey, 97% responded favorably to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” Bear in mind that in many cases, “extra effort” is in addition to routine travel to remote accident sites with only hours’ notice!

During more than 13 years at the agency, including the past 3 as Chairman, I’ve had the pleasure to be surrounded by, and to work with, these professionals. As Chairman, I have relied on them to help formulate strategic decisions, advise me on technical details, and echo and amplify my own thirst for safety improvements.

Many of our air safety investigators are pilots and aircraft mechanics themselves—and each of them can tear down an engine. Several have built their own airplanes. Many of our highway safety investigators come from law enforcement backgrounds. Our marine investigators generally maintain licenses first earned as deck and engine officers or have Coast Guard investigative or regulatory experience. Our railroad and pipeline investigators are veterans of those industries and their regulators as well. Although doctoral degrees are common throughout the agency, the environment is as far as you can imagine from an ivory tower.

The NTSB workforce is among the best in the federal government, which is what fuels my desire to make the NTSB the best place to work in the federal government—even if, for now, we have temporarily moved that workplace into our homes.

Today, like many workforces, we are physically distant from one another, but we are not alone. We are physically separate, but we will get through this together. I’m grateful for the dedication and resilience of every one of NTSB’s employees. And that, too, is no April Fool’s joke.

Remember Bellingham

By Member Jennifer Homendy

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Olympic Pipe Line rupture in Bellingham, Washington, which resulted in the release of about 237,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek that flowed through Whatcom Falls Park. Sometime after the rupture, the gasoline ignited and burned about 1.5 miles along the creek. Two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old young man named Liam Wood died; 8 others were injured.

Bellingham, WA
Postaccident aerial view of portion of Whatcom Creek showing fire damage.

Liam had just graduated from high school and was fly fishing when he was overcome with fumes from the rupture. Years later, I met Liam’s stepfather, Bruce Brabec, as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Since Liam’s death, Bruce has been a tireless advocate for closing gaping holes in pipeline safety regulations, many of which have been revealed as a result of our pipeline accident investigations.

This past fall, I saw Bruce at a pipeline safety conference. The discussions over the days that followed left me wondering how much we’ve accomplished over the last 20 years. Is our pipeline system truly safer?

From a numbers standpoint, it’s good news and bad news. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 275 significant gas and hazardous liquid pipeline incidents in 1999, resulting in 22 fatalities and 208 injuries. Since that time, the number of significant incidents has fluctuated as PHMSA adopted new reporting criteria, with 288 significant incidents occurring in 2018.

Fatalities and injuries have decreased since 1999 to 7 fatalities and 92 injuries in 2018, but that provides no comfort for victims, their families, or their loved ones. The fact is, although pipelines are one of the safest ways to transport hazardous material, the impact of just one incident can be devastating. And although the number of accidents is low compared to other modes like highway and rail, there is much more that pipeline operators and federal regulators can do to get to zero incidents, zero fatalities, and zero injuries on our nation’s pipeline system.

Our recommendation for operators to install automatic or remote-control shut-off valves in high‑consequence areas is a perfect example. In 1994, we investigated a natural gas transmission pipeline rupture in Edison, New Jersey, which resulted in a fire that injured 112 people and destroyed 8 buildings. Pipeline operators were unable to shut down the gas flow to the rupture for 2½ hours. Our report on the accident recommended that the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), PHMSA’s predecessor, expedite requirements that automatic- or remote‑operated mainline valves be installed on high-pressure pipelines in urban and environmentally sensitive areas so that failed pipeline segments can be rapidly shut down. We have been recommending valve installation in some form on pipelines since 1971.

In response, RSPA issued a regulation requiring operators to install a valve only if the operator determines it will efficiently protect a high-consequence area in the event of a gas release.

Fast forward to September 9, 2010, when an intrastate natural gas transmission pipeline owned and operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company ruptured in a residential area in San Bruno, California. The rupture produced a crater about 72 feet long by 26 feet wide. The section of pipe that ruptured was found 100 feet south of the crater. The released natural gas ignited, resulting in a fire that destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70. Eight people were killed, many were injured, and many more were evacuated from the area.

In our report on the accident, we once again recommended that PHMSA expedite the installation of automatic shutoff valves and remote-control valves on transmission lines in populated areas, drinking water sources, and unusually sensitive ecological resources. Congress then required PHMSA to implement the recommendation in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (PL 112-90).

It’s been a decade since San Bruno, and PHMSA is nowhere near issuing a final rule to implement our recommendation. This issue is highlighted on our 2019–2020 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements (Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials).

MWL03s_HazMat

It’s my hope that over the next few years, we’ll see some real improvements in pipeline safety and avoid tragedies like the ones in Bellingham and San Bruno. With the technology we have readily available today, there’s absolutely no reason for any parent to have to face the loss of a child because of a pipeline accident. I hope that the next time I see Bruce Brabec, we’ll finally have the regulations in place that he’s worked so hard for on Liam’s behalf.