Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SF Chronicle: Federal Government comes down hard on PG&E, California

Feds come down hard on PG&E for San Bruno blast

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San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane listens to findings during the NTSB hearings on the 2010 PG&E pipeline blast in Washington DC, on Tuesday, August 30, 2011.

Washington --
Federal investigators pinned blame Tuesday squarely on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the natural gas pipeline blast in San Bruno, condemning shoddy company safety practices for the devastation of a neighborhood and the deaths of eight people.

The National Transportation Safety Board, wrapping up a nearly yearlong investigation, also said federal and state pipeline regulatory efforts need to be overhauled to prevent another city from suffering such a disaster.

A seam weld in the pipeline segment that ruptured Sept. 9 in San Bruno was so obviously deficient that it would not have passed even a cursory visual inspection when a PG&E crew installed it in 1956, investigators with the safety board said. The weld flaw, and PG&E's failure over more than 50 years to conduct an inspection that would have detected it, made the line's rupture inevitable, they said.

"It was not a question of if this pipeline would burst," safety board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said at a hearing at which the agency presented its findings. "It was a question of when."

PG&E compounded the danger through "poor record keeping, inadequate inspection programs and an integrity management program without integrity," Hersman said before the five-member safety board voted unanimously to blame the explosion on the company.

PG&E's final mistakes happened the day of the blast, the safety board said, as a botched repair job set the disaster in motion and control-room operators failed to recognize what had happened for several precious minutes as the San Bruno neighborhood burned.

Homeowners paid the price for PG&E's longtime resistance to installing automatic pipeline shutoff valves, as it took the company more than 90 minutes to close manual valves and cut the flow of gas to the inferno. When the flames finally were extinguished, 38 homes were destroyed and 70 were damaged.

Lax regulation

It wasn't just what Hersman called PG&E's "litany of failures" that came in for criticism. The board chairwoman said the company had "exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight, and regulatory agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety."

Many of the 29 recommendations that the safety board approved Tuesday were aimed at turning the San Bruno explosion into a wake-up call both for government and for the pipeline industry nationwide.

The board called for federal regulators to repeal "grandfather" regulations that allowed pipelines installed before 1970, including the one in San Bruno, not to be tested using high-pressure water, a method that is effective at finding defective welds.

The safety board also pushed for requirements that PG&E and other utilities install automatic shutoff valves in pipelines in populated areas.

In a proposal that hints at the monumental task ahead, the safety board asked that gas transmission pipelines around the country be reconfigured to allow for testing for defects with in-line tools known as smart pigs.

Currently, more than half of the nation's gas transmission lines cannot accommodate such tools because they are filled with narrow turns and bends.

'Too late' for city

San Bruno sent a delegation of leaders to the hearing, and Mayor Jim Ruane said he was satisfied with the federal findings that PG&E was solely to blame.

"It's too late for our city, but it's not too late for other communities," Ruane said.

As for the city regaining confidence in PG&E, he said, "They have a long way to go."

Bill Magoolaghan, who is living with his wife and four young children in a Belmont rental while they rebuild their burned-out home in San Bruno, watched the hearing on the Internet. He welcomed the safety board's conclusions, but remained uneasy about the future.

"Now what?" he asked. "Recommendations and suggestions don't cut it. I need something much more firm. I need requirements. I need legislation. I need the safety board to tell the California Public Utilities Commission to fine PG&E an ungodly amount of money. It should be a staggering, record fine that PG&E will take seriously."

PG&E issued a statement after the hearing that said, "We fully embrace the recommendations of the NTSB and will fully incorporate them into our plans. Although we have much to learn and do, we have already taken many immediate and long-term steps to promote safety."

State promises changes

California Public Utilities Commission Executive Director Paul Clanon said he, too, welcomes the recommendations, including a call for a federal audit of his agency's effectiveness as well as a state audit of PG&E's safety program.
He said his agency had ordered utilities to "test or replace all grandfathered pipes" and is looking at "plans that include valve automation and retrofitting pipelines to accommodate in-line inspection tools."
Hersman traced the Sept. 9 disaster to PG&E's installation of a "woefully inadequate pipe," whose source remains unknown. At the rupture site at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive, which sits at the low point of a canyon, PG&E cobbled together six short pieces known as pups, allowing the line to negotiate the curve of the canyon.
Hersman and safety board investigators said five of the pipe pieces did not met PG&E or industry standards in place at the time. The one that failed had been welded along its longitudinal seam from the outside, but not the inside, leaving it prone to a break. The board concluded that it was not a factory-manufactured piece of pipe, rejecting PG&E's claim that a defunct steel company had made it.
The safety board said the weak pups would not have withstood specialized testing, such as the use of high-pressure water, for defective longitudinal seam welds. But PG&E never did such tests on the line and checked the pipe only for corrosion. Company records erroneously indicated that the line was seamless and thus had no seam welds.
"That pipe should not have been installed," said Donald Kramer, a metallurgical expert for the safety board who found the pipe to be riddled with substandard welds. "It's not supposed to be there."
Another investigator, Robert Hall, criticized PG&E's pipeline safety program for its approach to potential risks. He said the company had put too much emphasis on spotting problems caused by ground movement and third parties like construction crews, and too little emphasis on detecting design flaws.

Poor reactions

The federal safety board said PG&E had missed two earlier opportunities to fix problems in its gas operation - a 2008 explosion of a distribution line in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, in which a leak in a substandard pipe caused a blast that killed a homeowner, and a 1981 incident in San Francisco's Financial District in which the utility took nine hours to shut off gas from a pipe that exploded.

The problem in San Francisco was with manual shutoff valves, one of which had been paved over, investigators found. Despite being warned, PG&E resisted adding automatic valves, a stance it didn't change until after the San Bruno disaster.

The immediate cause of the San Bruno explosion was PG&E's loss of control of the gas pressure on the pipeline late the afternoon of Sept. 9, due to problems with the power supply during a repair job at the pipeline's southern terminus in Milpitas.

The federal probe found that the power problems resulted in erroneous indications of low pressure being sent to pipeline valves, causing those valves to swing wide open and pressure on the line to surge. The crew doing the repair job had no contingency plan to deal with the problem, investigators said.

PG&E's lack of an emergency plan, muddled communications and the absence of automatic shutoff valves resulted in the company taking 95 minutes to halt the flow of gas, the safety board said.

"We believe they had information within 10 minutes to know they had a line break," investigator Robert Trainor said of PG&E's pipeline operators. "That should have prompted an urgent response, but it did not."

While saying they could not identify exactly what caused earlier cracks on the defective seam weld, federal investigators said previous stresses to the line included pressure spikes that PG&E ordered in 2003 and 2008.

Hall, the safety board investigator, said after the hearing that investigators can't be certain about what role pressure spikes played because PG&E records are incomplete.

"We only had pressure records over the last 10 years," Hall said. "There's 40 years of history where we don't have a record on how it operated."

The safety board ruled out the possibility that a sewer line replacement project that San Bruno commissioned in 2008 had stressed the line and contributed to the accident. A blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission had said the sewer project was a likely contributing factor, as did a pipeline industry group.

Recommended changes

Some of the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations in response to the explosion of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s gas transmission line in San Bruno on Sept. 9.

To the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Tests: Require pre-1970 gas pipelines to undergo high-pressure water tests designed to detect substandard welds.
Rules: Change regulations to allow pipeline operators to consider manufacturing defects as safe only if they have survived a pressure test.
Inspections: Require that all natural-gas transmission lines be able to accommodate in-line inspection tools that can find defective welds.
Information sharing: Require pipeline operators to provide key details about their systems to local emergency officials, and to alert 911 when a pipeline ruptures.
Leak detection: Require pipeline operators to improve leak-detection systems.
Shutoff valves: Require that pipeline operators increase the number of automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves in urban areas.

To the governor of California

Fines: Give the California Public Utilities Commission's pipeline safety division the direct authority to fine pipeline operators for safety violations.

To the California Public Utilities Commission

Audits: With federal regulators, audit all aspects of PG&E's operation, including the company's record keeping, integrity management program, emergency planning and control room operations.


Shutoff valves: Expedite the installation of automatic and remote-controlled gas shutoff valves.
Leak detection: Improve the system for detecting pipeline leaks.
Maintenance: Overhaul the company's pipeline integrity management program.
Emergency response: Establish a comprehensive emergency response plan for pipeline disasters.

History of ill-fated pipeline

1944-48: Pacific Gas and Electric Co. installs Line 132, a 30-inch gas transmission line, from Milpitas to the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco.

1956: To make way for the Crestmoor subdivision in San Bruno, PG&E reconfigures a section of Line 132 in a slight canyon. The new portion includes several short sections of substandard pipe, joined by what are later determined to be inferior girth welds. One section of pipe contains an incomplete seam weld, which held for 54 years before rupturing in September 2010, leading to the pipe's explosion. The pipe sections' manufacturer remains a mystery, but PG&E says its crews installed the pipe.

1961: California starts regulating gas pipelines, including their design, construction, safety and operation. The rule requires operators to maintain accurate records for the life of a pipeline.

Jan. 2, 1963: Line 109, similar to Line 132, explodes in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood, injuring nine firefighters and causing the heart-attack death of a battalion chief. PG&E loses records for the line, including a key document explaining what caused the explosion, but insists the line failed at a girth weld.

March 4, 1965: A pipeline explosion kills 17 people in Natchitoches, La., prompting the federal government to consider oversight of gas pipelines.

1968: Congress passes a law imposing federal regulation on gas pipelines, but includes a loophole that would contribute to the San Bruno disaster 42 years later. A grandfathering provision allows PG&E and other pipeline operators to skip pressure tests that would have discovered the defective weld that ruptured in September.

1970: The new federal Office of Pipeline Safety issues the first federal pipeline safety regulations enforcing the 1968 law. Key is a requirement that pipelines built after March 1971 have superior welds. With some exceptions, older pipelines like the one in San Bruno don't have to be upgraded or retrofitted.

Aug. 25, 1981: A 16-inch natural gas main ruptures at Sacramento and Battery streets in San Francisco, forcing 30,000 people to flee as the line spews gas laced with toxic PCBs. It takes nine hours for workers struggling with manually operated valves to shut off the gas.

1988: PG&E crews replace 12 feet of Line 132 after a routine inspection uncovers a leaking seam weld 9 miles south of where the pipe eventually exploded. PG&E had to review records for the line after passage of a 2002 law and should have inspected for other bad seam welds, based on this incident, but never did so.

1993: PG&E begins converting paper records to a computerized system. The effort is marked by disorganization that results in the loss of much information, including the fact that Line 132 was built with longitudinal seams that were held together with welds. A manager warns in a 1993 memo that failure to keep and track records "may be costly to PG&E in the future."

2000: PG&E sharply curtails a program that in the previous 15 years had replaced hundreds of miles of aged gas-transmission pipe, including portions of Line 132 near the eventual blast site.

2002: The federal government passes a law requiring operators to periodically inspect all their pipelines in populated areas. Regulators allow an inspection method that PG&E uses widely that is well-suited to find corrosion on pipes, but does not detect problem welds. The law also sets urban pipeline pressure maximums at the highest point at which a line has operated over a five-year period, and requires weld inspections if that maximum is exceeded.

2003: PG&E increases pressure on Line 132 to 403 pounds per square inch for two hours. The following year, it classifies the line as urban and therefore subject to inspections - setting the spiked pressure level as the legal maximum. Some experts express concern that the spike may have exacerbated problems such as Line 132's incomplete seam weld in San Bruno.

March 2008: PG&E adopts a policy that allows it to exceed maximum federal pipeline pressure levels by 10 percent.

December 2008: PG&E spikes Line 132 to just above the legal maximum.

Dec. 24, 2008: A leaking gas distribution line causes an explosion in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, killing one person. State investigators later find that PG&E installed substandard pipe and sent an untrained worker to find the leak that led to the blast.

December 2009: PG&E inspects Line 132 with a method best-suited for finding corrosion, not bad welds, and declares the line problem-free.

May 2010: The state PUC again audits PG&E safety practices and finds that the company is improperly favoring the anticorrosion inspection method over a more expensive test, using high-pressure water, that can find bad welds. PG&E receives the audit a month after the San Bruno explosion.

Sept. 9, 2010: A power outage at Line 132's southern terminus in Milpitas causes a pressure surge. At 6:11 p.m., the line ruptures at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive in San Bruno, sparking a fireball that kills eight people and destroys 38 homes. Gas continues to feed the flames for 90 minutes as PG&E sends an untrained worker to shut off manual valves.

January 2011: At the urging of the federal government, the state PUC orders PG&E and other pipeline operators to produce records vouching for the safety of their urban gas transmission lines. Three months later, PG&E admits that complete documentation is missing for about a quarter of its 1,800-plus pipeline miles. The company is still looking for records, including much of the documentation for Line 132.

March 2011: PG&E announces plans to conduct water-pressure tests capable of finding bad welds on 152 miles of gas transmission lines by the end of 2011. The company later admits it has fallen behind on the tests. The utility says it will increase the number of automatic shutoff valves on its pipelines. The valves can stop the flow of gas in less than 15 minutes.

June 2011: A panel of experts convened by the state PUC rips the agency's regulation of PG&E as excessively hands-off, and criticizes the company for developing an insular culture that minimized safety.

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