U.S. senators representing California Tuesday said they believe the pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA, earlier this month would have been far less of a disaster if the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) line had automatic shutoff valves.

If there had been automatic or remotely controlled valves to shut off the gas flowing through the pipeline, "we wouldn't be here," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on pipeline safety.

On Sept. 9 the inferno burned for one hour and 29 minutes before gas to the 30-inch diameter pipeline could be turned off at two different locations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the subcommittee (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13). To turn off the two valves -- one located a mile away from the explosion and the other 1.5 miles away -- she said a worker had to drive through rush hour traffic, use a key to get into the area where one valve was and attach a handle to the valve to crank it.

As a result, it took more than five hours to turn off all the distribution lines to the homes that were on fire, Feinstein said.

"There's no question that turning them off sooner would have resulted in less damage," said Christopher A. Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The target date for completion of the agency's final report on the accident is 12 months, he said, but added that "our pipeline folks are pretty busy" investigating a number of pipeline mishaps.

Paul Clanon, executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), said the CPUC's focus was on automatic shutoff valves, and hoped to be "ahead of the curve" with the rest of the country on this.

Also contributing to the disaster was the age of the pipeline (more than 60 years) and the fact that it ran through a residential neighborhood, which did not exist when the pipeline was first built. The PG&E pipeline was also operating at more than 300 psi, Feinstein said.

Feinstein, who toured the damage area following the explosion, said it "resembled a war zone...it was like a bomb had struck." The explosion killed seven people, injured 52 people and destroyed 37 homes, according to subcommittee Chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).

"We recognize that the accident has shaken customers' confidence in the safety and integrity of our system, both in the areas surrounding San Bruno and across PG&E's service areas. We take these concerns very seriously and have taken steps to help restore that confidence," said PG&E President Christopher Johns.

"First we reinspected the three major pipelines that serve the San Francisco Peninsula. We also reduced the operating pressure of the transmission lines serving the area by 20%," and "we are conducting aerial inspections of our entire natural gas system." Moreover, "we have begun the ground leak survey of the entire gas transmission system beginning with the high-consequence areas," he said.

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