One year after San Bruno blast: Can it happen again? 

click to enlarge Is it safe? Experts say no matter what was learned in the aftermath of the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, similar incidents could occur again. (AP file photo) - IS IT SAFE? EXPERTS SAY NO MATTER WHAT WAS LEARNED IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE SAN BRUNO NATURAL GAS PIPELINE EXPLOSION, SIMILAR INCIDENTS COULD OCCUR AGAIN. (AP FILE PHOTO)
  • Is it safe? Experts say no matter what was learned in the aftermath of the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, similar incidents could occur again. (AP file photo)
  • Is it safe? Experts say no matter what was learned in the aftermath of the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, similar incidents could occur again. (AP file photo)

At 6:11 p.m. one Thursday evening nearly a year ago, San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood transformed from a tranquil suburb to an unquelchable firestorm. Neighbors for miles around felt a ferocious roar above them, heard a walloping bang, and then witnessed a geyser of flames and smoke shoot heavenward — which led many to believe that a plane had flown into the ground.

But the specter had not come from above; it had come from below. At a bend in one of the thousands of pipelines that snake just below California’s surface, high-pressure gas had burst through a shoddy weld. The 30-inch tube carried natural gas destined for water heaters and stoves in San Francisco. But it instead spewed the fumes into Crestmoor, igniting an inferno that would kill eight people, destroy dozens of homes, and imprint a burning question into millions of minds around the world: Could it happen here?

Could San Bruno happen again? The simple answer is yes, according to a dozen experts, industry insiders, lawmakers and regulators interviewed for this story. Here’s why:

  • The accident exposed that not only did PG&E know little about the pipeline that ran under San Bruno, but equally little about many other pipelines in the state. A year after the blast, the company is still scrambling to gather records on 700 miles of pipelines that crisscross California. When PG&E officials were required to turn over data to their regulator this spring, they could only find complete testing records on 56 percent of their pipelines. The utility simply doesn’t have enough information yet about its own pipelines to know whether they could be vulnerable to rupture or not, said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno. As to whether gathering that information and testing old pipelines will ultimately result in a safe system, Hill said it “may be enough at the end of the day, but the end of the day is years away.”
  • The regulator that California has trusted to oversee the pipeline operators has, by its own admission, been complacent in this task for many years. The leaders of the California Public Utilities Commission acknowledge the agency has been yoked with a culture more focused on checking off boxes than on making sure everything was being run safely. Even had they wanted to closely monitor safety, they hardly had the staff to do so: On Sept. 9 last year, the agency had just nine inspectors — one for every 11,000 miles of pipeline in the state. Today, they’ve doubled that staff, bringing it almost up to national standards, according to CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon. Whether those standards are good enough to do the trick, Clanon said he just didn’t know yet.
  • The pipelines are getting older and have been undermaintained for decades, making them more likely to fail, explained UC Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea. “There’s high potential for defects and damage in this old infrastructure system,” he said. Those defects are increasingly becoming apparent to federal investigators. National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said her agency is actively investigating five pipeline failures, and had to turn away an additional 10 investigations due to lack of resources.  
  • Federal rules require all pipelines installed since 1970 to be inspected — but they grandfather in all older pipelines, allowing operators to leave untested the very ones that present the gravest danger to the public. (California only recently eliminated such grandfathering.) Bills currently being considered by Congress, which were heavily influenced by industry lobbyists, would suggest pipeline operators begin inspecting those old pipelines, but would not mandate these tests. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, has scorned such weak standards, saying they guarantee these dangers will continue to lurk for years to come.

The likelihood that these unseen dangers will come to light in catastrophic ways has increased over time — and so have the consequences of such a failure, Bea said. He noted that early pictures of the pipeline installations in San Bruno show it was laid in the middle of open fields, all “grass, trees and some of those lovely California cows.” That same pipeline — originally installed in the mid-1950s — is now surrounded by “homes, hospitals — all sorts of important things that dramatically increase the consequences of failure,” he said.

And yet there is no foreseeable mitigation of that risk. A handful of cities, such as Austin, Texas, have passed planning regulations forbidding hospitals, jails and other hard-to-evacuate buildings from being constructed near high-volume pipelines. Though there was some discussion in San Francisco about such regulations immediately after the San Bruno tragedy, there has been no action.

Ultimately, it’s unreasonable to expect a system carrying flammable liquid throughout the state to ever be completely risk-free. But most experts believe that if the government begins to take these threats seriously, they could indeed be averted.

In an NTSB hearing last week, board members wondered aloud how many more accidents may be on the way before the issue receives the attention it deserves. Board member Mark Rosekind described the San Bruno disaster as a “harbinger of things to come.”

But at minimum, the tragedy in San Bruno has inspired some changes in California, said Richard Kuprewitz, a national pipeline safety consultant.

“We need to be moving forward, and I’m seeing evidence of that. Is it enough? That jury is still out,” Kuprewitz said. “It’s a big elephant; it just doesn’t turn on a dime.”

Dangerous lines

The San Bruno pipeline rupture killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. But it wasn’t the first deadly pipeline rupture, nor likely the last. Here are some of America’s other destructive gas pipeline ruptures of the past decade:

Aug. 19, 2000 A 30-inch natural gas pipeline near Carlsbad, N.M., exploded, killing 12 members of a family camping nearby. The cause was determined to be severe internal corrosion inside the pipe.

Aug. 21, 2004 A 2-inch plastic natural gas main in DuBois, Pa., ruptured, destroying a home and killing two residents. Investigators determined the pipeline had been leaking out of a joint.

Dec. 24, 2008 A natural gas distribution line in front of a home in Rancho Cordova exploded, killing one person and injuring five more, including a PG&E employee and a firefighter. It was ultimately determined that the wrong kind of pipeline had been laid, and that PG&E had not responded to the incident in a timely manner.

June 7-8, 2010 Workers drilling holes for new utility poles struck an unmarked 36-inch natural gas pipeline south of Fort Worth, Texas, killing one worker and injuring several more. The next day, construction workers struck another unmarked line with a bulldozer near the town of Darrouzett, Texas, rupturing the line. Two workers were killed and three injured.

Feb. 10, 2011 Natural gas pipeline exploded in Allentown, Pa., killing five people and damaging dozens of homes. The cause is still under investigation, but the pipeline that ruptured was more than 80 years old.

Sources: NTSB, news reports

Are we still at risk?

“I think we’re on the road to safety. I wouldn’t say we are fail-safe at this point.”

— Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo

“In my opinion we’re not safe. ... We’re seeing the fact that PG&E still does not know what’s underground, or the condition of their pipe, nor even the type of pipe they have.”

 — Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Bruno

“I can say with high confidence that the system is a lot safer now than it was a year ago.”

 — Paul Clanon, executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission

“Yes, we are still at risk, and that’s because there’s ample evidence that there’s high potential for defects and damage in this old infrastructure system. … Pipelines are very much like you and I: their likelihood of failure goes up over time.”  

 — Bob Bea, UC Berkeley engineering professor

“Out of our sadness and regret has come an ironclad commitment to help the community rebuild and to refashion PG&E’s management and operating practices to make sure we operate our pipeline as safely as possible.”

— Chris Johns, president of PG&E

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Katie Worth

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