Archive for: August, 2011

The San Bruno pipeline explosion and PG&E's response.

Aug 30 2011 Published by under Current events, Professional ethics

The evening of September 9, 2010, a natural gas pipeline under San Bruno, California, ruptured and exploded. The resulting conflagration destroyed a neighborhood worth of houses and killed eight people.

PG&E, the utility company responsible for the pipeline, has not been terribly helpful in providing information to pinpoint why the disaster happened, nor in adopting changes to head off future disasters of this sort. Today, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) releases findings of its investigation of the incident, and of PG&E's handling of it. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

A defective weld in the pipe segment that ruptured existed from the moment the line was buried under the Crestmoor neighborhood in 1956, said investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board. The flaw would have been apparent if anyone had checked, either then or in the years since, the investigators said at a hearing in Washington, D.C.

Agency Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, in her opening statement, traced the Sept. 9 disaster to PG&E's installation of a "woefully inadequate pipe," whose source remains a mystery.

The company, Hersman said, "exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight, and regulatory agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety."

The use of the defective pipe "was compounded over the years by a litany of failures" by PG&E, Hersman said, "including poor record-keeping, inadequate inspection programs, and an integrity management program without integrity."

"It was not a question of if this pipeline would burst," Hersman said. "It was a question of when."

(Bold emphasis added.)

PG&E has posted a response to the NTSB investigation. Among other things, it states:

Since September 9, 2010, PG&E has taken multiple steps to improve the safety of our natural gas operations, including:

  • Creating a separate operating unit for our gas operations under the leadership of a newly hired gas operations expert who brings 30 years of experience in improving some of the nation’s oldest gas systems
  • Implementing more stringent pipeline operating standards
  • Hiring more than 90 new gas engineers as well as additional project managers, mappers and other employees in a major nationwide recruiting effort
  • Providing additional training to our gas operations employees
  • Retaining leading safety experts to help implement public and employee safety best practices
  • Beginning a major new initiative to replace or upgrade many older gas lines, add automatic or remote shut-off valves, and help develop state-of-the-art pipeline inspection technologies
  • Improving our coordination with local emergency responders

That's a fine list of improvements, as far as it goes. But I'm a little surprised that it fails to explicitly address at least one of the big criticisms from the NTSB that was highlighted (above the fold, even) in all of the news coverage of the investigation I've seen so far.

Are we going to address the shortcomings in record-keeping?

Better inspections will help -- if PG&E can keep track of when they happen and what they discover (and share that information with local, state, and federal officials when asked to do so).

Serious efforts to maintain, upgrade, and replace flawed sections of the pipeline should also help -- if there's a usable paper-trail of the maintenance, upgrades, replacements, and so forth. Because there's a whole lot of pipe underground, and apparently PG&E has, at present, not a clue about which sections of it are riddled with bad welds like the section that failed in San Bruno.

"Trust us" isn't going to work here. Without adequate record-keeping, PG&E cannot know what we would need the organization to know to inspire anything like trust -- and cannot demonstrate that they're doing the job to the regulators. We don't need to impute evil intent here; incompetence is sufficent.

As I type this post, NTSB is holding a public hearing on the incident. You can catch the live webcast (until 12:30 PM Pacific time/3:30 PM Eastern time) here

Or, if you miss the webcast (or prefer text on a screen), John Upton is liveblogging the hearing.

2 responses so far