Calif. senators push for more pipeline inspectors, shut off valves

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A Senate committee today looked at natural gas pipeline safety. The hearing, prompted in part by a gas line explosion in a San Bruno neighborhood, focused on automatic shut off valves and an apparent lack of federal inspectors. San Mateo County officials also announced that an eighth victim has died from the blast earlier this month.

It took an hour and a half for Pacific Gas and Electric employees to cut off the gas after a pipeline rupture earlier this month in San Bruno.

At a Capitol Hill hearing, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer pressed the head of PG&E, Christopher Johns, to support her bill that would require automatic shutoff valves. Johns deferred to the authority of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Boxer asked whether "we ought to have shut off valves in place?"

Johns said he'd "work with the CPUC to look where it makes sense because shut off valves in that instance would — assuming that they work — would have turned it off faster than when we got there."

The Boxer-Feinstein bill would require automatic shut off valves. It would also fund an additional 100 pipeline inspectors.

Testifying at the hearing, Feinstein said every inspector is responsible for 2,000 miles of pipeline — about the distance between San Francisco and Chicago.

Cynthia Quarterman heads up the federal government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. She says if Congress adds additional positions, "we will be all over them."

Quarterman said the boom in new construction over the past decade means inspectors have less time for regular inspections of the pipeline system. She also says government red tape makes it tough for her to fill the jobs she has.

The San Mateo County coroner's office says a 58-year-old man who was badly burned in the blast and fire died from his injuries.

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