A week after the natural gas transmission pipeline tragedy in the San Francisco Bay Area, gas remained a headline-maker whether it involved speculation on city sewer work somehow contributing to the explosion and fire, or lawmakers proposing safeguards. Routine gas utility distribution pipeline breaks and reports of gas odors were being tracked as potential major events.

A week after the fatal blast, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) had restored gas and electric service to all but one of the 315 homes in area of San Bruno, CA surrounding the blast site. PG&E service representatives continued service restorations, conducting safety checks and relighting pilot lights.

Some 37 homes were destroyed and others were damaged Sept. 9 in the explosion of the 30-inch high pressure line that killed four people, blasting out a 160-foot long and 60-foot deep crater.

Around the state and particularly in Sacramento, elected officials and news media followed the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) speculation about a municipal sewer line replacement two years ago that came close to the spot on the PG&E transmission pipeline where the blast occurred, and calls for state legislation to add new layers of safety were being floated in the news media coverage as trial balloons.

Regarding the sewer line work, PG&E records confirmed that it inspected the nearby transmission pipeline before and after the sewer line replacement and found nothing amiss. Media interest, however, focused more intently on the municipal infrastructure work after NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said the sewer line’s possible role had to be thoroughly examined, although he stressed that no conclusions concerning it had been reached by his agency’s investigation team.

Hart has stressed that “multiple factors” usually contribute to major energy infrastructure failures. A former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Brigham McCown, was contacted by the Los Angeles Times, and he endorsed the idea that anything “near or adjacent” to the failed pipeline could have been a factor. He said the sewer work had to be thoroughly investigated.

State and Congressional lawmakers representing the areas in and around San Bruno just south of San Francisco began raising questions about the need for tighter safety regulations, such as requiring that any pipelines going through heavily populated areas have automatic, remotely operated shutoff valves. They were responding to the fact that it took PG&E workers in the field more than 1 hour and 45 minutes to manually close valves on the pipeline on either side of the failure.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who represents the San Mateo County suburbs, which include San Bruno, said she plans to introduce legislation on the automatic valve issue next year. And a state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno in the lower house in Sacramento, said he would introduce legislation later this year when lawmakers return to try to resolve the state’s budget crisis.

California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) safety division director Julie Halligan that there are no federal or state requirements for the automatic valve, and that it is left to the discretion of the pipeline owners, in this case, PG&E.

State Sen. Mark Leno from San Francisco said he wants to require that utility shareholders — not customers — pay costs when it is shown that negligence is to blame for an explosion or fire.

Thursday saw the release of regulatory records showing that PG&E three years ago was approved to spend $5 million to replace a high-risk section of the 30-inch diameter transmission pipeline (Line 132) that failed. The risky section was located north of the blast site, but work was never performed, and this year the utility asked for the $5 million again.

“PG&E claimed it needed money to repair this high-risk pipeline, with an estimated cost of $5 million,” said The Utilities Reform Network Executive Director Mark Toney. “But it failed to spend the money to get the job done.” In the same year the company spent nearly $5 million on bonuses for six of its most highly paid executives alone. “The company’s priorities appear to be skewed,” he said.

PG&E CEO Christopher Johns during a Wednesday night briefing with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the utility’s priorities are constantly shifting. What might have been a top priority at one point in the year could end up being deferred when other, more pressing safety concerns arise, Johns said.

Extraordinary interest has arisen the past couple of days when routine distribution pipeline breakage has occurred. An incident Thursday afternoon near downtown Oakland, CA, caused buildings to be evacuated and major television coverage to ensue. It was a contract crew breaking a three-inch diameter distribution pipeline in the heavily populated Lake Merritt section of Oakland. No injuries occurred, and the residents were allowed back into high-rise buildings an hour later.

Elsewhere, two schools in San Francisco and San Bruno were evacuated on the reports of natural gas odors. No leaks were found.

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