Federal safety officials at a meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Tuesday in Washington, DC, described last September’s fatal San Bruno, CA, natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion as preventable and resulting from systemic “flawed” pipeline operations and oversight by state regulators.

In adopting 28 findings, a probable cause of lax utility work dating back 54 years, and 26 recommendations, the five-member NTSB was unsparing in its criticism of the industry generally, federal regulators and California’s regulators and pipeline operators. The 26 recommendations were spread among the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) (2); the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA, 13); governor of California (one); California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC, two); and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E, eight).

Subsequently, during a discussion among the five members, recommendations were added to require reports from the American Gas Association (AGA) and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, accounting for what their members and industries as a whole are doing to advance pipeline safety.

PG&E utility President Christopher Johns said the utility “embraces the recommendations and will incorporate them into our plans [see Daily GPI, Aug. 29]. Although we still have much to learn and do, we have already taken many immediate and long-term steps to promote safety.”

Noting that state regulators plan to complete an audit of PG&E’s integrity management pipeline safety program, CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said the agency will evaluate the NTSB’s specific recommendations and that by the end of this year the commission plans to adopt “a citation program” giving the CPUC staff ability to fine natural gas pipeline operators immediately if a violation is found.

Watchdog group The Utility Reform Network (TURN) urged the CPUC to reverse course and hold PG&E accountable by holding the utility to “a higher standard.” TURN called PG&E’s reaction to San Bruno a “slow, confused response.”

AGA said Tuesday it “commends” NTSB for presenting its findings and for “providing further insight into how Pacific Gas & Electric and the entire pipeline industry can ensure such an accident never happens again.” The association added that the findings will allow it and its member companies “the opportunity to reinforce their ongoing commitment to enhancing the safety of the nation’s natural gas utilities and their customers.”

It was clear throughout the discussions and in the closing comments that the NTSB members intend for regulation of the gas pipeline industry to be stepped up considerably on a national basis. They called for the DOT to audit the current effectiveness of PHMSA and make changes as appropriate.

“In the pipeline industry there must be effective oversight and strong enforcement,” said NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman at the conclusion of the nearly six-hour meeting, lamenting the fact that in moving to integrity management programs the federal oversight has shifted from “prescriptive regulation to performance-based regulation.” Her concern is that the performance-based approach places too much reliance on the operator’s integrity and often leaves regulators in a position in which they “really don’t know what is going on.” She cited PG&E as an example of a failure by operators to communicate forthrightly and in a timely manner.

Citing pipeline tragedies preceding San Bruno, Hersman said “multiple, recurring deficiencies over many years illustrate systemic problems at PG&E.” For regulators to do their jobs properly, she said, they “cannot trust [operators] alone; they must also verify. As we saw in San Bruno, when the oversight is lax, the consequences can be deadly.”

Specifically, the failed pipeline segment in San Bruno was flawed since its installation in 1956 as was the installation as carried out by PG&E, the report concluded. Compounding this and contributing to the failure was a badly flawed pipeline integrity management program that led to an “organizational failure,” which has continued for decades.

The draft report from the NTSB staff presented a scathing indictment of the utility-operator, PG&E, and its oversight from both the CPUC and PHMSA. Criticism of PG&E was particularly harsh, accusing the San Francisco-based combination utility of not learning from two previous serious NTSB-investigated pipeline failures in San Francisco in 1981 and the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova in 2008.

One of the key conclusions was that PG&E’s inadequate and inaccurate record-keeping made it impossible for the utility to have an effective pipeline integrity management program. As a result, the system understated threats and caused the utility to select the wrong tests for the pipeline segment (Line 132) that failed at a pressure below its maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP), the NTSB said.

A focus of the investigation was on one of six unusually short lengths of pipe — called “pups” — that involved a number of welding defects that failed resulting in the explosion that killed eight, injured 50 and destroyed 38 homes. A troubling conclusion, however, is that there is no way of knowing how extensive similar pups are in the PG&E system of 5,700 miles of transmission pipeline because the source of these welds and segments is unknown, based on the utility’s flawed record-keeping system.

In local news media reports, an engineering professor, the CPUC’s Clanon and a PG&E utility spokesperson all acknowledged the need to complete extensive testing to make sure the utility’s in-state gas transmission pipeline network is safe. Until then, PG&E “must be regarded as guilty until proven innocent,” said UC Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea in a report in the San Jose Mercury News.

PG&E said it was “grateful” to the NTSB in helping it “improve” its natural gas operations, along with listing seven actions it is already taking to the goal of “assuring that such an accident never happens again.”

Concerns going forward include greatly changed behavior by PG&E, the CPUC and PHMSA, along with a continuing concern about “how many other San Brunos” are simmering unnoticed around the nation’s 2.5 million-mile network of gas pipelines, NTSB members said.

“Today, you are going to hear some troubling revelations about a company that exploited weaknesses in a lax safety system and a system of oversight,” Hersman said. She referred to government agencies placing a “blind trust” in PG&E “to the detriment of public safety.”

Hersman said the NTSB investigation has shown that PG&E’s 30-inch diameter Line 132 was flawed from the beginning of its installations in 1956 by “a woefully inadequate pipe.” In turn, that was “compounded over the years by a litany of failures, including poor record-keeping, inadequate inspection programs and integrity management programs without integrity.”

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