National investigators held the last of their local daily briefings Tuesday night on the San Bruno, CA, utility natural gas pipeline failure and said Wednesday the focus will shift to reports from Washington, DC, where two of the gas industry's trade associations issued statements on the fatal explosion and fire (see Daily GPI, Sept. 16a; Sept. 13). Meanwhile, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) spokespeople said the utility is focusing on community restoration and state-ordered inspection work.

While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has offered little in the way of new information on its ongoing investigation, its spokesperson at the scene told NGI a preliminary report will be issued from Washington, DC, in about three weeks, the 30-day report the federal agency is obligated to make. A more definitive report on the probable cause of last week's incident, which took at least four lives, won't come for a year, according to NTSB's Peter Knudson.

Knudson and his counterparts at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) spent part of Wednesday clarifying the objectivity of separate key employees at NTSB and the CPUC who are former PG&E utility employees. One is the lead investigator for NTSB and the other is the CPUC's top lawyer.

Ravi Chhatre, the NTSB's investigator in charge for the four-member team from the NTSB, previously worked for PG&E for 20 years (1978-1998). Chhatre, who has been with the federal board for almost 13 years, previously worked at the private-sector combination utility as a material scientist in its research department.

"Mr. Chhatre divested himself of all PG&E stock before becoming employed by the NTSB in 1998," according to Knudson. The agency prohibits investigators from having any stock in a company subject to its investigation, he said, adding that neither Chhatre's spouse nor his adult children own PG&E stock.

Frank Lindh has been the CPUC's general counsel since June 2008, coming to the agency from PG&E where he had worked for a decade as an attorney. A CPUC spokesperson said Lindh has "no financial interests in PG&E," and he could not have been hired by the state regulatory agency if he had.

"PG&E continues to work with NTSB and the CPUC and fully cooperate with both," a utility spokesperson told NGI from the site, where gas and electric utility service had been restored to all but seven of the 315 homes that survived the blast.

U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), both of whom represent California, said they plan to introduce legislation to strengthen oversight of the nation's pipelines and substantially increase penalties for violations. "We are going over the legislation proposed" Wednesday by Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood (see Daily GPI, Sept. 16b) and intend to "retain the best parts and introduce it as quickly as possible," they said.

The DOT legislation, "Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2010," would boost maximum penalties for serious pipeline violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm to $2.5 million from $1 million. It also would add 40 inspection and enforcement personnel at DOT over the next four years. And it would expand the jurisdiction of DOT to include oversight of currently unregulated pipelines.

Feinstein and Boxer have already called on DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to immediately order inspections of federal regulated interstate natural gas pipelines throughout California.

Back from a trade mission to China, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger scheduled a walk through and briefing late Wednesday at the site, using the occasion to commend federal, state and local emergency response personnel and his new lieutenant governor. He also signed a request for federal disaster relief.

"I think the important thing is now to investigate," said Schwarzenegger. "We have the investigators here. We want to find out exactly what happened because the important thing is that something like this doesn't ever happen again."

While the focus for PG&E has been on the aftermath in San Bruno and the rest of its utility pipeline system throughout California, the incident has drawn national attention. In Washington, DC, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and American Gas Association (AGA) separately issued statements this week expressing condolences and reassuring the general public that the gas industry infrastructure is among the safest in the world.

Noting the transmission pipeline industry has an "unwavering" commitment to safety, INGAA cited U.S. Department of Transportation assurances that the "natural gas transmission pipeline system is among the safest modes of transportation in the nation." AGA said any natural gas incident -- no matter the size -- is one incident too many, and that was why its organization stresses a commitment to "best practices and engaging in industry dialogue."

"Natural gas utilities are subject not only to their own stringent internal controls, but also must meet rigorous federal and state oversight to ensure that gas is delivered safely, reliably and efficiently through its 2.4 million miles of distribution and transmission pipelines, serving more than 165 million Americans daily," AGA said.

INGAA stressed that the industry and the American public both have been the beneficiaries of "clear regulation and robust safety standards that have been in place for more than 40 years."

The PG&E spokesperson said "our focus remains on our customers and we're working hard on the ground" to get the restores completed and that was down to just a handful of people who don't have service. "We're helping San Bruno officials as best we can to rebuild."

Regarding the lack of automatic shutoff valves on the failed pipeline, a PG&E senior vice president confirmed Wednesday that it took the utility one hour and 46 minutes to shut manual valves on either side of the explosion. The affected line (Line 132), along with two other PG&E transmission pipelines in the area, are all operating, but at a 20% lower pressure than what was in place when the conflagration struck. The utility has routed gas in Line 132 around the explosion area and supplies continue to flow.

The utility clarified its position on the question of wildfires and recovering in rates what insurance coverage is unable to cover in terms of wildfire damages. Contrary to reports, PG&E said it does not think the San Bruno incident can be classified as a wildfire, but nonetheless, the utility thinks it should be able to collect in rates at a future time amounts of damages paid as a result of the pipeline explosion and fire that exceed the $992 million it has in liability insurance.

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