Even though water and sewer lines run parallel to the natural gas transmission pipeline that ruptured last September in San Bruno, CA, city officials, including the fire chief, were generally unaware of the gas line before the incident, according to testimony Wednesday in the second of three days of fact-gathering hearings in Washington, DC, by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said his department “didn’t have the information”…or “maps of pipelines going through” San Bruno. “I just didn’t know about it.” Haag said he generally knew there were two gas pipelines running roughly parallel up the peninsula south of San Francisco, following two north-south highways into the city (Highways 101 and 280).

“The situation on Sept. 9 wasn’t something that we could ever imagine,” Haag said.

The hearing also delved into the effectiveness of California regulatory oversight of pipeline operators such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) and the job they are doing in operating and maintaining transmission pipelines. Both officials from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and national organizations said ongoing budget constraints among states and the relatively good safety record of the gas pipeline industry make it difficult for state regulators to justify added resources to carry out oversight programs.

There were also issues raised about PG&E’s alleged practices of raising transmission pipeline pressures to their maximum allowable levels and whether pre-1970 pipelines should continue to be exempted from the latest federal requirements for integrity management programs. Indications from state and federal regulatory representatives were that these issues will need to be addressed.

While information sharing on gas pipelines has increased since the explosion, speakers from the local government arena indicated that a lot more needs to be done. PG&E officials said before the second day of hearings that the company has “taken steps to significantly enhance our public safety partnerships.”

San Bruno’s Haag refused to speculate on whether his department could have responded more effectively to the pipeline break if it had been more familiar with the line’s location and the shutoff valves on that pipeline. As a result of the tragedy, PG&E is now providing information and training to first responders, including “customized information on PG&E’s pipeline system and emergency response plans.”

Testimony seemed to underscore the need for more efforts that PG&E, the CPUC and federal regulators have already initiated, including a more aggressive effort to reach out to local communities to let them know where their gas pipeline network is located and how it can be approached in an emergency. The federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration already has asked for this effort nationwide.

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