Category Archives: Pipeline

Finding Out What Happened in San Bruno

By Debbie Hersman

Firefighters approach the San Bruno fire

Last year, on the evening of September 9, 2010, Line 132 of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno, California, ruptured. The escaping gas — enough gas to power 1,200 residential households for one year — created an inferno that fatally injured eight people, injured 58, destroyed 38 homes, and damaged 70 others.

Tomorrow, the NTSB will meet to discuss the final report prepared by the team who has been investigating this accident for nearly a year. It’s been a difficult investigation, especially since the pipe that ruptured dates back more than half a century and getting accurate information on the line has been a challenge.

While the San Bruno community has been working together to recover and rebuild, the NTSB’s role is to find out what happened and make recommendations to ensure that future tragedies are prevented. We have already issued 10 recommendations as a result of our work on this accident. Tomorrow we will approve our final report and make additional recommendations with the hope that the lessons of San Bruno are well-learned and are never repeated.

You can watch the meeting live via webcast on Aug. 30 starting at 9:30 a.m. We will also post a synopsis of the NTSB report, including the probable cause, conclusions, and a complete list of all the safety recommendations on our website following the meeting.

Advancing Transportation Safety

By: Deborah Hersman

Every year, the NTSB, like many other federal agencies, prepares an annual report to Congress about our activities during the previous year. We submitted our 2010 report on June 24, detailing our many significant accomplishments across all transportation modes.  During 2010, we:

  • launched to over 200 accidents, including launches to six major accidents;
  • issued 227 safety recommendations (170 in aviation, 18 in highway, 25 in railroad, 7 in marine, and 7 in pipeline);
  • closed 132 safety recommendations in an acceptable status;
  • held 5 public forums on fishing vessel safety, aging drivers, child passenger safety in the air and in automobiles, professionalism in aviation and aviation code sharing arrangements.    

The accomplishments outlined in the report were realized in no small part due to our employees’ dedication to the goals of accountability, integrity, and transparency. We’re a small agency, but what we lack in numbers, we more than make up for in teamwork and a desire to leave no stone unturned in arriving at the correct probable cause of an accident or incident. Of equal importance are our safety recommendations, which stem from our investigations of accidents and incidents. Every recommendation we issue is based on our desire to prevent similar accidents or incidents from occurring in the future. I am very proud to serve as the Chairman of this remarkable agency, and I am equally proud of our mission and of the dedicated and professional employees who work to make transportation safer for all. The 2010 Annual Report may be viewed at the following link:

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.

Call Before You Dig

By Debbie Hersman

Always call 811 before you dig.

Did you know to call 811 before you begin any excavation project — for example, before planting a tree, installing a mailbox, or building a deck? The reason: To protect you from hitting underground utility lines.

This is important. Damage to underground lines is a leading cause of pipeline accidents. While pipelines are a very safe mode of transportation, there has been a spate of recent accidents across the country in the last year. The NTSB currently has five active pipeline accident investigations.

We’ve seen from recent tragic accidents in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and San Bruno, California, that pipeline accidents can be deadly. The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is addressing the state of the nation’s pipeline infrastructure, is holding a Pipeline Safety Forum today. I moderated this morning’s panel, which addressed, “What Are the Highest Pipeline Risks?”

As Richard Worsinger, president of the American Public Gas Association said, “Excavation damage is a main concern.” That sentiment was echoed by other panelists who agree public education is essential.

To support public education, April has been designated National Safe Digging Month. To learn more about calling 811, check out