Plenty of Questions About San Bruno

October 2010 Vol. 237 No. 10

In the wake of the deadly San Bruno, CA “incident,” as the industry likes to call it, that came in the wake of Enbridge’s problems in Michigan, Illinois and New York, which came in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the pipeline industry is going to have to come clean about the state of its infrastructure. Exactly how safe is the delivery system?

It’s not enough anymore to defend performance by saying that billions are spent on safety-related issues every year. How much money is actually being spent and by whom and for what? It’s not enough to say that we’re following the industry “standard.” What does that mean? Why can’t performance exceed the so-called “standard”? It’s not enough to say that safety is a “core value.” Do you actually understand the difference between a core value and a “priority?”

That’s all going to end, thanks to the summer of 2010, topped off with the explosion of a 30-inch diameter pipeline owned by P&GE that ran through the heart of San Bruno and left seven people dead, many injured and an entire neighborhood leveled by a blast that showed the destructive force contained within natural gas molecules, if not properly controlled.

Investigators have yet to determine the exact cause of the explosion; what we know from published reports indicate the San Bruno main had a good chance of failing sooner rather than later.

  1. The section of pipe that exploded was 62 years old.
  2. The main was made of steel, which comprises nearly 2/3 of the nation’s larger gas mains. Some regulators consider this to be a safety hazard because of its rigidity is more likely to corrode. Earlier this summer, the Texas Railroad Commission announced a long-range plan to convert steel mains to plastic.
  3. The age of the gas main, combined with twists and turns of the pipeline, prohibited PG&E from using robots that would have been the best way to maintain and inspect the line.
  4. In 2007 PG&E received approval to spend $5 million of ratepayer money to replace a high-risk section of the 30-inch pipeline north of the blast site, but never did the work. Earlier this year, PG&E asked for another $5 million to do the same job. In that second request, PG&E described the portion of the pipeline about 1.5 miles north of the blast site as ranking in “the top 100 highest risk line sections” in a 2007 evaluation. After testing the pipe corrosion in 2009, PG&E decided to reschedule the work for 2013.

Bad news has a tendency to spread quickly. On Sept. 20 the New York Post’s headline read “New York’s old gas lines could explode like pipe near San Francisco.”

“New York’s aging natural-gas pipelines are ready to blow, experts warn,” read the lead, quoting a civil engineer that “we are looking at catastrophic failure that might be coming. Our piping infrastructure is very, very old. The biggest problem is we really don’t know their condition. We only know about them when there is breakage. We just fix the breakage and wait for the next failure.”

According to the article, in 2009 32% of Con Ed’s 4,300 miles of gas mains in the city and Westchester County was cast iron and 30% was unprotected steel. Con Ed also lists 1,196 miles of steel mains and 40% date prior to 1940. They replace 40-50 miles of antiquated mains annually.

National Grid NY has 1,728 miles of cast-iron pipe and 382 miles of bare steel pipe; of its 4,069 miles of pipe, 1,745 miles were installed prior to 1940. They replace about 25 miles annually.

Most companies are working slowly to replace antiquated pieces of their infrastructure but it’s extremely expensive, inconvenient and subject to prioritization. One proposal before Congress would more than double penalties for safety violations, require emergency flow-restricting tools in pipelines and expand the number of lines and areas covered by enhanced safety rules for pipes running through populated areas. One expert suggested to the Wall Street Journal creation of a national commission to study the problem of high-pressure fuel pipelines that pass through residential areas as well as near schools and other public sites.

I have another suggestion: how about spending some of that stimulus money to provide real infrastructure integrity?

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