3 years after San Bruno gas explosion, is California safer?

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2010, file photo, a massive fire roars through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif.  (AP Photo/Michael Sah, file)
FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2010, file photo, a massive fire roars through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif. (AP Photo/Michael Sah, file) Michael Sah/AP

An explosion in East Harlem that killed at least seven people on Wednesday morning and injured dozens more is believed to have been caused by a natural gas leak. Con Edison officials said they received reports of a gas odor shortly before the explosion. 

The circumstances sparked memories of a similar blast that took place in San Bruno, California, three years ago, when a gas explosion and subsequent fire killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company had been negligent both in its quality control of its installed pipes and in its emergency response.

The investigation also found that the California Public Utilities Commission failed to detect problems with how PG&E managed its inspections. 

Outcry after the accident led to several changes with how gas utilities safeguard their systems. U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011, a bill that, among other things, required utilities owners to perform pressure tests on pipelines or show adequate proof that tests had been done. President Obama signed the bill on January 3, 2012. 

What has changed?

Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the CPUC, said in a written statement that after the accident the commission began requiring gas operators to meet new safety guidelines. 

From the statement:

Among other requirements, natural gas transmission pipelines must:

• Have been pressure tested or replaced;

• Have traceable, verifiable, and complete records readily available;

• Where warranted, be capable of accommodating in-line inspection devices; and

• Where warranted, have automated shut off valves installed capable of quickly isolating pipe sections in the event of an emergency.

Southern California Gas Company — whose 20,000 square mile service area spans most of the state's southern third — submitted an implementation plan to the CPUC for approval in August 2011 and is waiting for a final decision from the commission. In the meantime, officials at SoCal Gas said they've identified 215 miles of pipeline that require hydrostatic pressure testing. The utility maintains 94,000 miles of pipeline. 

Click here to see a map of the Los Angeles area's natural gas pipelines, and enter your location to see the pipelines near you.

Angela Fentiman, a spokeswoman for SoCal Gas, confirmed figures from CPUC that the utility has completed testing on 14 miles of pipeline. She said testing had been completed on a line that runs through the cities of Banning, Beaumont, Chino, Riverside and Corona. Additional testing and replacement will be done on lines in Encino, Palmdale, Santa Clarita, El Monte, San Diego and Lompoc and should begin by May. All work is expected to be completed over the next decade.

Who will pay?

Some of the work has begun at the direction of the CPUC, despite no final approval of SoCal Gas's implementation plan. Part of the hold up is related to the question of where the funding for testing will come from. Fentiman said that Phase I, which tests and replaces pipes in populated areas, is estimated to cost $1.45 billion. She said her company is hoping the CPUC will agree that those costs should be passed on to rate payers. 

"Because customers are the primary benefactors of the enhancement plan, most of the costs associated are going to be reflected in customer rates," Fentiman said.  

Some utility watchdogs believe that the utility companies should cover the costs. 

"The rules required pressure tests, and the utilities somehow either didn't do the pressure tests or lost the records," said Thomas Long, legal director for The Utility Reform Network. "Look, we paid for you to do your jobs right the first time. If you weren't able to do it right, we shouldn't pay for it."

The question of who will shoulder the costs will be decided by the CPUC, but there's no indication as to when the decision is expected to be made. 

Long said that while he applauds the testing requirements, he'd like to see more transparency throughout the industry. 

"Unfortunately, a lot of the regulation seems to happen behind closed doors, and conversations between utility executives and engineers and employees of the California Public Utilities Commission," Long said. "We don't know a lot about what's going on in those meetings." 

Long is ambivalent as to whether he feels California is safer since the San Bruno disaster.

"I'd have to say the jury is still out," Long said.

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