AP: Explosion highlights lax pipeline rules

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In the end, authorities left it to companies to decide whether and where to install remotely operated valves.

PG&E told the agency in their comments for that study that remotely operated valves could “enhance safety by reducing the volume of flammable gas.”

In a follow-up letter two years later, the company lobbied against them: “Potentially, a quick shut down of gas flow by an RCV (remotely-controlled valve) may give the public a false sense of security,” a PG&E engineer wrote in the letter.

Over the last 60 years, PG&E has put in more than 60 remotely controlled valves on transmission pipelines located near earthquake fault lines or in areas that are vulnerable to external damage or critical to operations, spokesman Joe Molica said.

About a mile from the accident site, the San Bruno line runs within 300 feet of an area believed to have an earthquake fault line. But Molica said the utility’s preference had been to make the pipes themselves more resistant to earthquakes rather than installing valves to shut them down quickly if an accident occurs.

That leaves most of the company’s 6,700 miles of transmission lines without the valves. Molica said cost wasn’t a factor, yet cost was cited by the company when it was lobbying against the valves in the late 1990s.

This fall, after the explosion, PG&E announced it would install more remotely operated and automatic valves in highly populated zones — urban areas with at least 50,000 people and at least 1,000 people per square mile.

Coroner’s reports obtained by the AP indicate at least five of the eight dead in San Bruno were trying to flee when they died.

Evidence released to date leaves it unclear if the deaths of any of the five could have been avoided if different valves were in place. But experts said it was possible — and that others who were injured and homes that were leveled might have been spared.

If valves on the line had closed immediately after the initial explosion, the gas-fed fire likely would have gone out in under 10 minutes, said Theo Theofanous, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara who directs its Center for Risk Studies and Safety.

“This just begs the question as to why they didn’t put in more shut-off valves, especially in such a populated area,” said Theofanous, who analyzed the accident for the AP and served on a 2004 National Academy of Engineering pipeline safety committee.

The head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, Cynthia Quarterman, told the AP that her staff was reviewing whether too much leeway has been given to companies to determine how and where to initiate safety upgrades.

Also, new rules are in the works to expand requirements for shut-off valves — both for pipelines serving homeowners and also larger lines that carry hazardous liquids such as oil or propane, Quarterman said.

A review of those proposals show they would leave out natural gas transmission lines like the one in San Bruno.

While Quarterman declined to comment on her agency’s long-term track record and allegations that it gives too much weight to the gas companies it regulates, she said it is committed to reform and takes all NTSB recommendations seriously.

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