San Bruno fire chief says he didn't know about PG&E gas line that exploded

Accident scene with the crater in the foreground and the ruptured pipe section in the background
Accident scene with the crater in the foreground and the ruptured pipe section in the background National Transportation Safety Board

Fire officials in San Bruno had no idea a major natural gas pipeline ran under their city. It's the latest testimony at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the natural gas explosion south of San Francisco.

San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag says prior to the September 9 explosion last year, he didn’t know about the natural gas transmission line running right under San Bruno.

Testifying before the National Transportation Safety Board, Haag said that when he was a firefighter in neighboring Millbrae in the 1980s, PG&E was servicing a natural gas line and he was part of the fire crew standing by. Haag told NTSB investigator Bob Trainor that at that time, a PG&E employee mentioned there was a major transmission line that ran under the 101 freeway.

Trainor asked Haag for clarification. "If I understand you correctly," he said, "the comment was made in the context of responding to an incident as opposed to a specific focused effort to exchange information?"

Chief Haag told Trainor that was correct.

A PG&E official testified the company gives fire departments an “overview” of the gas transmission system – and provides them access to a national mapping system that shows the location of major pipelines.

The NTSB also considered the best way to inform public about pipelines.

Pacific Gas and Electric said it mails its customers pipeline information in their monthly bills. But Carl Weimer, who heads the non-profit Pipeline Safety Trust, says PG&E buries vital information under paragraphs touting its safety record. Weimer says gas companies quote the NTSB, saying pipelines are the safest way to transport fuel. He says the statement is true. "But if that’s your lead-in message on a public awareness piece to try to try to get safety messages out to people, why would anybody read the rest of the brochure? You’ve just told them everything is safe. If the message on the cover was more to the tune of 'there’s a significant incident in this country every other day and a half' or 'someone ends up dead or seriously injured every four or five days from a pipeline incident,' maybe they’d open the brochure up and take those safety messages to heart.

An NTSB investigator admitted he didn’t know whether there was a pipeline under his house.

On a different topic, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration testified that 60 percent of the nation’s gas pipes were installed more than 35 years ago. The agency’s deputy associate administrator Linda Daugherty said the challenge with an aging infrastructure is how to balance cost with safety. "We can look at ideally it would be wonderful if we could replace all older pipe and we could put valves at very, very frequent intervals. The fact of the matter is, there’s a cost to that. And whether the American economy can bear it or not, I don’t know. I have seen estimates that replacing 50% of valves would be very much in the millions – like 600 million. It would be very, very costly.”

Pacific Gas and Electric says the piece of pipeline that ruptured in San Bruno was manufactured in 1948.

The NTSB hearing concludes tomorrow with a discussion about a new technology to detect leaks or internal damage in pipelines.

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