Federal regulators say California gas pipeline in deadly blast was ranked high risk

By Trevor Hunnicutt, AP
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Calif. gas pipe that exploded ranked high risk

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — Federal and state investigators say the section of natural gas pipeline that ruptured and exploded in a deadly fireball near San Francisco had been categorized as high risk because it ran through a highly populated area.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press showed that Pacific Gas & Electric submitted paperwork to regulators that said a section of the same gas line — about two and half miles from the blast — was within “the top 100 highest risk line sections” in the utility’s service territory.

A PG&E spokesman confirmed Sunday that the section of pipe mentioned in the documents was on the same line as the segment that ruptured and located several miles north of the explosion.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said PG&E had classified the 30-inch diameter transmission line as a “high consequence area” requiring more stringent inspections called integrity assessments, agency spokeswoman Julia Valentine said.

Nationwide, only about 7 percent of gas lines have that classification, she said.

The official death toll from the blast was four Sunday, and San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said they’re still trying to confirm whether more remains found are human and identify victims. Authorities have said five people are missing and at least 60 people have been injured, some critically.

Police Chief Neil Telford had said Saturday that seven had died, but authorities said later it wasn’t immediately clear if remains were from victims already accounted for.

Most of the residents whose homes suffered less damage will be allowed to go back starting at noon, City Manager Connie Jackson said Sunday. Nearly 50 homes were destroyed and seven severely damaged, while dozens of other homes suffered less severe damage in the fire that sped across 15 acres, according to city building inspectors.

The cause of Thursday evening’s fire pipeline blast is under investigation.

The state commission had conducted audits on that section of pipeline, which PG&E also classified as having a high-risk designation in documents filed with the state, spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said. PG&E also had conducted leak surveys, evaluations and patrols on the gas line, she said.

PG&E spokesman Andrew Souvall said the company had planned to replace the piece of the gasline mentioned in the documents as a part of its broader proposal to upgrade infrastructure that the commission began considering last year.

A company filing shows the utility determined that stretch of pipe should be replaced given its location in a heavily urbanized area and because the risk of failure was “unacceptably high.” The 30-inch diameter line installed in 1948 was slated to be swapped for new 24-inch pipe, according to the document.

Souvall did not immediately say whether records showed any complaints from San Bruno residents in the days leading up the blast, or when the section that ruptured had last been inspected. But he said the segment farther north was checked for leaks on September 10 and none were found.

“We take action on a daily basis to repair our equipment as needed,” he said. “PG&E takes a proactive approach toward the maintenance of our gas lines and we’re constantly monitoring our system.”

Reams of data and records have been requested from PG&E, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher Hart said at a Saturday evening briefing.

The segment of pipe that blew out onto the street was 28 feet long, the explosion sent that piece of pipe about 100 feet and the blast created a crater 167 feet long and 26 feet wide, he said.

An inspection of the severed pipe chunk revealed that it was made of several smaller sections that had been welded together and that a seam ran its length, Hart said.

The presence of the welds did not necessarily indicate the pipe had been repaired, he said. Asked whether a welded pipe was more susceptible to leaks or corrosion, Hart said: “Maybe, and maybe not.”

One of the dead worked for the commission reviewing PG&E’s investment plans to upgrade its natural gas lines, including the risky section of the same pipeline within miles of her home, a colleague confirmed.

Longtime California Public Utilities Commission analyst Jacqueline Greig and her 13-year-old daughter Janessa died in the massive blast, which left a crater near their house and laid waste to dozens of 1960s-era homes in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Jessica Morales, 20, was also killed in the explosion and fire. One other victim hasn’t been identified.

Greig spent part of the summer evaluating PG&E’s expansion plans and investment proposals to replace out-of-date pipes, co-worker Pearlie Sabino said.

Sabino and Greig were members of a small commission team that advocates for consumer and environmental protections pertaining to natural gas.

“It’s just so shocking because she was one of the ones who was most closely involved with this kind of work,” said Mike Florio, an attorney with a San Francisco-based utility reform advocacy group who worked with Greig. “Little did we know that pipe was near Jackie’s own neighborhood.”

Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who is serving as acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger travels in Asia, directed the commission to perform integrity assessments of all pipeline segments in the area.

Maldonado also ordered further inspections and surveys for high consequence areas, including a detailed inspection of three transmission lines that run through San Mateo County.

PG&E workers have almost finished inspecting its three transmission lines that run through San Bruno and further south down the San Francisco peninsula, PG&E vice president Geisha Williams said.

Authorities were continuing to treat the site as a crime scene, Telford said.

“We don’t know what caused this explosion. We have deaths,” he said. “If there was any kind of criminal negligence or any kind of criminal activity, we need to maintain that crime scene.”

Sonia Salinda’s home was destroyed in the fire, but her husband, Ricardo, and 15-year-old son were able to escape. She said she wants to return to what’s left of her home to find closure.

“I can’t wait to see it, even though it’s all destroyed, because I know that’s where I am going to start again,” she said.

When residents return to their homes on Sunday, PG&E representatives will accompany them to help restore pilot lights and make sure it is safe to turn power back on, Williams said.

“We know our customers are extremely nervous, and who wouldn’t be given what’s happened here?” she said.

On Saturday, PG&E also started giving out $1,000 gift cards, rental car and hotel vouchers to people displaced by the blast. Williams said the company also was prepared to compensate families with relatives killed or injured in the blast and provide long-term housing assistance to those who lost their homes.

“We will do everything we can to make you whole,” she said.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press video journalist Haven Daley and writer Lisa Leff in San Bruno and John S. Marshall and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco. Burke reported from Fresno, Calif.

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