NTSB Recommendations On San Bruno Put Pressure On Congress And Obama Administration

October 2011, Vol. 238 No. 10

The pipeline safety recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Aug. 30 puts significant pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to respond to problems discovered as part of the NTSB investigation of the PG&E San Bruno explosion in September 2010.

Eight persons were killed and many others injured as a result of that accident. The recommendations go way beyond the legislation Congress has begun to pass through committees and in the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued Aug. 24.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a pipeline safety reform bill Sept. 8 just after returning from summer recess. Called the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011(H.R. 2845), it came a week after the NTSB released its final conclusions on San Bruno. The explosion was caused by escape of gas from a fracture in a defective piece of pipe installed in 1956. PG&E’s integrity management program, which the NTSB called “deficient and ineffective,” should have caught the defect, but did not.

The NTSB was also sharply critical of the PHMSA which released an ANPR Aug. 24 which sets the stage for possible regulatory changes to the transmission integrity management program (TIMP) authorized by Congress in 2002 and put in place by PHMSA in 2003. The TIMP requires interstate pipelines to test segments running through “high consequence areas” (HCAs) and repair any potential problems.

The NTSB recommendations focus on PHMSA supervision of the TIMP but also push enhancements of many other pipeline safety rules, such as exemption from hydrostatic testing for pipelines built prior to 1970. The defective PG&E segment which ruptured in San Bruno was exempt from hydrostatic testing, which would have probably found the defect. The NTSB recommended that the Department of Transportation provide considerably more oversight to PHMSA supervision of the TIMP in addition to directives to PHMSA itself in the areas of control room operation, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, installation of shutoff valves, provision of pipeline data to local emergency responders, expanded inline testing, drug and alcohol programs and other topics. The board also asked for elimination of the pre-1970 pipeline exemption from hydrostatic testing.

INGAA CEO Don Santa says his association’s Pipeline Safety Task Force’s Integrity Management Continuous Improvement (IMCI) team is implementing action plans that address NTSB’s recommendations.

The bill passed by the House committee Sept. 8, a second House bill in the Energy & Commerce Committee and a third bill passed in May by the Senate Commerce Committee respond to only a handful of the NTSB recommendations, partially at that. The House Transportation Committee bill is very similar to the Energy & Commerce bill, which is called the Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011. INGAA prefers the House E&C bill to the Senate bill, called the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011(S. 275).

In its San Bruno report, the NTSB criticized the PHMSA for inadequate TIMP inspection protocols and for not incorporating the use of effective and meaningful metrics as part of its guidance for effective performance-based pipeline safety management programs. Neither the House nor Senate bills require upgrading PHMSA standards or inspection of transmission company implementation of the TIMP. The bills do charge PHMSA with making recommendations whether to expand the TIMP to areas not now considered HCAs.

The House and Senate bills cover some of the ground in the NTSB recommendations but stop short of requiring most of what NTSB recommends, such as automatic shutoff valves. The bills, for example, require shut off valves if they are “economically, technically and operationally feasible” and then only for new pipelines. The NTSB wants automatic shutoff valves or remote control valves in high consequence areas and in class 3 and 4 locations.

A House staffer explains that widespread use of remote control valves “which run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – in every transmission line in every HCA would place an impossible burden on industry and consumers alike.”

The House and Senate bills have no provisions related to SCADA, for example. The House Energy & Commerce bill does end the grandfathering of pre-1970 pipelines from maximum allowable operating pressure requirements. “Closing this loophole will help prevent accidents like San Bruno in the future,” says the House staffer. She adds, “As part of expanding integrity management programs into transmission lines located outside high consequence areas, we are starting the process of requiring inline inspection of many more miles of gas transmission lines.”

The NTSB investigation also determined that a sewer line installation in 2008 near the rupture did not damage the defective pipe. Nonetheless, the House Transportation bill requires PHMSA to conduct a study of third-party excavation damage, a provision missing from the Senate bill. Both bills eliminate current exemptions for local government civil works arms from state “one-call” notification systems. Andy Black, president and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipelines, singles out the removal of exemptions from one-call programs for praise. But he adds, “We encourage Congress and PHMSA to remove additional exemptions for mechanized excavation, in order to eliminate the safety gap they cause.”

The PHMSA ANPR issued in August focuses on integrity management standards inside HCAs and whether to include pipeline segments, currently outside HCAs, in them. Terry Boss, senior vice president for INGAA, says the group does not support expanding HCAs but does want to bring ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) protections to areas outside HCAs. In its detailed submission in July, INGAA committed to “coverage of affected population as the basis for extending integrity management principles of B31.8S to at least 70% of the population within the PIR by 2020.” B31.8S is an ASME standard on which most of the TIMP regulatory program is based. However, the ASME standard does not include, for example, a requirement that companies re-inspect pipeline segments in HCAs every seven years. That has been a TIMP provision which INGAA has tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Congress to alter.

Boss explains that gas transmission pipelines have already done much more than what is required by the TIMP in terms of protecting non-HCAs, but have done a poor job of communicating their extra efforts to PHMSA. That said, he adds that the PHMSA ANPR “pretty well matches”- in terms of what could become potential new requirements – what most pipelines are already doing. So there were no big surprises in the document.