In an all-day hearing, federal investigators summed up what many residents of San Bruno assumed months ago: PG&E is to blame for a massive pipeline blast that leveled a neighborhood and killed eight people one year ago.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded the powerful utility company had several opportunities to avert the deadly Sept. 9 explosion, but failed to do so. The tragedy was made worse by PG&E’s poor response after the disaster.
Tuesday’s hearing was the culmination of a yearlong federal probe into the deadly San Bruno explosion. While many details of PG&E’s failures have been made public during the past year, the NTSB’s final report represented the harshest official assessment of PG&E’s role to date.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the investigation highlighted “troubling revelations about a company that exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight and government agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety.”
Hersman emphasized that this was the third NTSB investigation into a failed PG&E pipeline in 30 years — and that in the past, the company has not taken the NTSB’s recommendations seriously. It will be up to regulators to hold the company’s feet to the fire this time, she said.
The San Bruno pipeline that blew up, known as pipeline 132, had numerous flaws — ones Hersman said could have been identified with the bare eye before PG&E placed it in the ground in the mid-1950s.
But once the pipe was laid in the ground, PG&E made a number of mistakes. It lost all information about the pipeline and made erroneous assumptions about what was under the ground. It never inspected the line, despite discovering leaks and other problems elsewhere along it. In fact, investigators believe that in the years before the blast, the company inspected just 65 feet of the 47-mile pipeline.
PG&E has never produced documents that show where the pipeline was manufactured or whether there may be other sections of pipe in its system with similar problems.
The company developed and adopted a pipeline safety program that completely failed to actually ensure its system was safe, the NTSB found. To this day, PG&E has no idea how many other problematic pipes could be in its system.
The defect in the San Bruno pipeline would have remained latent for longer had PG&E followed proper safety procedures during a project in Milpitas on the day of the blast. Problems with that project caused the
pressure inside the pipe to spike just enough to trigger the blast.
After the hearing, PG&E Senior Vice President Greg Pruett acknowledged the public has reason to be skeptical that the company will follow through on its promises. But he said this time, they are serious about making their system safer.
“A year from now, check in with us, and I guarantee you will see real, live, tangible differences, and I’ll bet you two, three, four years from now, you’ll continue to see them,” he said. “Nobody wants to ever have something like this happen again. It’s terrible.”
Key findings of the NTSB investigation
- Seismic activity, corrosion, third-party damage, the 2008 sewer replacement in the vicinity, and drug use by the tested PG&E workers were ruled out as factors in the disaster.
- The pipe that blew up was defective when PG&E put it in the ground in 1956. It did not comply with PG&E’s specifications or standards of the day, and would have burst if it had ever been tested.
- The defective pipe ruptured when it did because PG&E workers did not comply with the company’s own safety procedures on a project farther down the line in Milpitas. Inadequate handling of that project allowed the pressure on the pipe to spike.
- PG&E lacked adequate emergency response procedures to handle the disaster once it happened. Its poor response, including a 95-minute delay in turning off the gas flowing into the fire, caused significant additional damage and destruction.
Government regulators not let off the hook
The company operating the pipeline that blew up in San Bruno last year would not have had the luxury of ignoring the safety of that pipeline for so long had it not been for inadequate government regulators that allowed them to do so.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the California Public Utilities Commission and federal Department of Transportation had contributed to the disaster by allowing all older pipes to be exempted from testing and inspection requirements. The government regulators also failed to notice how poor PG&E’s safety program was.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman blasted regulators for taking companies at their word when they promise to do the right thing.
“You cannot place blind trust in an operator that doesn’t deserve that trust,” she said.
Another major problem is that the regulators rarely hold the companies responsible when things go wrong. In part, this is because the arm of CPUC charged with overseeing PG&E’s safety program cannot directly fine the company if it finds violations.
Changing that was one of many recommendations the NTSB had for state and federal regulators to improve public safety. Others included closing the grandfather clause that allow utilities not to test old pipelines such as the one that exploded in San Bruno.
Because of that grandfather clause, which has recently been eliminated in California but still stands virtually everywhere else, board member Mark Rosekind wondered aloud whether the incident could be a “harbinger of things to come.”
Lead investigator Ravi Chhatre estimated there could be as many as 150,000 miles of pipeline in the country that are exempted from inspections.
The government needs to take a hard line on safety issues because otherwise, utility companies will simply make empty promises, while privately flaunting safety, Hersman said.
In a statement issued after the hearing, CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said the agency welcomes the recommendations and has already begun implementing many of them.