California Explosion Prompts Proposal for Tougher Pipeline Regulations

In response to the recent <"">San Bruno pipeline explosion, two US Democratic senators from California introduced a bill to impose more stringent pipeline safety standards, said the LA Times.

The September 9th natural gas explosion shot a fireball more than 1,000 feet in the air, and sent fire tearing across several blocks. According to a CNN report, the blast spewed concrete and heat from the flames melted taillights on cars blocks away. The blast killed at least seven people, injured about 60, and destroyed or severely damaged 56 homes. Fire damage is estimated at $65 million.

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer’s 23-page Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enhancement Act, which enhances US Transportation Secretary Ron LaHood’s legislation proposed last week mandates that automatic electronic valves replace current manual valves, in-line inspection devices be installed, federal officials create standards for leak detection devices, federal inspector personnel be doubled, safety violation fines be increased, and older lines in seismic areas be prioritized, said the LA Times. Today, 100 inspectors examine 216,306 miles of nationwide pipeline; PG&E’s peninsula pipelines are located in close to the San Andreas Fault, noted the LA Times.

The bill also mandates pipelines not be inspected with in-line devices operated at lower pressures. State utilities regulators ordered PG&E to lower pressure by 20 percent on the ruptured pipeline; however, the utility argued that there could be problems delivering sufficient gas in cold weather to the San Francisco Peninsula, wrote the LA Times.

“The pipeline explosion in San Bruno was a tragedy that must never occur again in any American neighborhood,” Feinstein said, quoted the LA Times. “The American people must be assured that the pipelines that crisscross the nation and run beneath their streets are safe,” the senator added.

We recently wrote that an investigation into the explosion was focusing on work performed on a sewer near the ruptured line in 2008. According to the LA Times previously, the method used by the city to replace the sewer line is known to pose risks to nearby pipes. It is not yet known what caused the PG&E 30-inch pipeline to rupture; however, Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the LA Times that the 2008 sewer project is among the factors being probed.

The work enlarged the diameter of the sewer pipe from six to 10 inches, and used a trenchless “pipe bursting” method that a 2001 study from the US Army Corps of Engineers found could potentially disturb, displace, and compact soils. If the pipe bursting procedure damages nearby pipes, it usually occurs during construction work. The two years that passed before this accident “diminishes the connection, but it doesn’t eliminate it,” the co-author of the report told the LA Times. It is possible that the soil could buckle over time. According to the report, PG&E had inspected its gas line and found no problems after the sewer work.

The pipeline’s transmission line runs over 51 miles from Milpitas to San Francisco, said the LA Times. Installed in 1956, the pipeline was not on PG&E’s top 100 high-risk sections, noted the LA Times. Also, PG&E said it could not use in-line pipeline inspection devices—so-called pigs—because of diameter changes in the lines. Pigs, said the LA Times, are the best way in which to locate “internal corrosion and weakening pipeline walls,” and are used on about one-quarter of the utility’s lines.

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