US & World

San Bruno residents push officials for answers on why gas pipeline exploded

A couple walks by homes that were destroyed by fire following a deadly gas main explosion on September 13, 2010 in San Bruno, California.
A couple walks by homes that were destroyed by fire following a deadly gas main explosion on September 13, 2010 in San Bruno, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

State and federal officials met Monday night with the people who live in the San Bruno neighborhood hit by a natural gas explosion. Four people were killed in the blast and fire; four more are still missing. The crowd that packed a local church heard reassurances – but not many answers.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier ran the community meeting. She read questions residents had written on white slips of paper.

"As a homeowner, is there any way I would have known I was living on top of a 30-inch natural gas line?"

Speier answered that one herself and drew the only applause of the night.

"I think that every resident has a right to know if there's a transmission line in their backyard, or in their front yard, or a block, or a foot away from their home." Speier said.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that information was readily available. People can still get the location of pipelines in their community – but they have to ask the utility company for it.

The people who live in the burned-out San Bruno neighborhood found out about the underground natural gas pipeline that ran near their homes when it burst open last week – and ignited a ball of flame that shot hundreds of feet in the air and set 37 homes on fire.

Why that happened could take a year to figure out. What the San Bruno families worry about is whether it could happen again.

Christopher Hart with The National Transportation Safety Board reassured them.

"If in the course of our investigation we find issues that warrant immediate attention we will issue immediate recommendations," Hart said. "And if we see issues here that are system-wide issues and not just related to this accident, we will address them as system-wide issues as well."

The natural gas pipeline in San Bruno was installed in the 1950s when populations were smaller. The state agency that regulates natural gas pipelines is the Public Utilities Commission and it requires natural gas distributors to inspect older pipelines more often. It’s ordered PG&E to reduce the pressure in the ruptured pipeline by 20 percent.

"Unfortunately the world is not perfect and these sorts of things happen," said Richard Clark – who runs the Commission’s safety division. The PUC ordered PG&E to inspect all its pipelines in California starting with the 1,021 miles in California's cities.

"We try to build all the barriers we can build between the daily operations of natural gas facilities and these type of disastrous outcomes," Clark said.

California's Public Utilities Commission gave PG&E one month to complete the pipeline inspections.