Federal safety officials fault PG&E in San Bruno blast hearing 

click to enlarge National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman stands next to the damaged pipe from the San Bruno natural gas explosion during a news conference at the NTSB Training Center and Lab in Ashburn, Va., Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, to discuss the federal investigation into the San Bruno blast. The NTSB is expected to reveal the results of a yearlong investigation into the pipeline explosion (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) - NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD CHAIR DEBORAH HERSMAN STANDS NEXT TO THE DAMAGED PIPE FROM THE SAN BRUNO NATURAL GAS EXPLOSION DURING A NEWS CONFERENCE AT THE NTSB TRAINING CENTER AND LAB IN ASHBURN, VA., MONDAY, AUG. 29, 2011, TO DISCUS
  • National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman stands next to the damaged pipe from the San Bruno natural gas explosion during a news conference at the NTSB Training Center and Lab in Ashburn, Va., Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, to discus
  • National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman stands next to the damaged pipe from the San Bruno natural gas explosion during a news conference at the NTSB Training Center and Lab in Ashburn, Va., Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, to discuss the federal investigation into the San Bruno blast. The NTSB is expected to reveal the results of a yearlong investigation into the pipeline explosion (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Federal investigators and safety officials tore apart Pacific Gas & Electric’s operations at a public hearing today, saying the company’s repeated failures to live up to its own safety standards over the course of decades predestined a failure like the one that occurred in San Bruno nearly a year ago.

The hearing wraps up the National Transportation and Safety Board’s yearlong investigation into the cause of the disaster, which took eight lives and destroyed 38 homes in the Crestmoor neighborhood of the San Francisco suburb.

In her opening comments, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told the crowd gathered for the hearing that they would hear “troubling revelations” about the company.

She said PG&E “exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight and government agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety.”

She noted that this was not the first NTSB investigation into a PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion.

In August 1981, it took PG&E more than nine hours to shut down gas flow following a pipeline rupture in San Francisco, and in their investigation, found “inadequate recordkeeping as a contributing cause.”

Some 17 years later, an explosion in Rancho Cordova led NTSB to criticize the company for failing to quality-control their installations of pipelines, and having inadequate emergency response procedures.

PG&E failed to fix any of these problems in time to prevent the San Bruno disaster last year, according to investigators’ testimony this morning.

The company has, after a year, still failed to turn over crucial records that could tell where the flawed section of pipeline came from — a failure that Hersman said was extremely frustrating to investigators.

The pipeline that exploded was made up of several small sections of pipeline, several of which were not welded properly. PG&E has maintained they were manufactured by a steel factory that provided most of their pipeline — a theory that, if true, would perhaps make the company less liable for the disaster.

But investigators blew apart that theory, showing that the pipe sections have no similarity to a manufactured pipeline.

Further, the defect that later would rupture was clearly visible to the plain eye, and should have been detected before it was laid in the ground, Hersman said.

In one exchange in the hearing, NTSB Commissioner Robert Sumwalt asked lead investigator Ravi Chhatre who owns the line that blew up, pipeline 132.

“PG&E owns pipe 132,” Chhatre responded.

“And who operates it?” Sumwalt asked.

“PG&E does,” Chhatre said.

“And who has responsibility to inspect and maintain it?”

“PG&E does,” Chhatre said.

“OK, thank you,” Sumwalt said. “It really doesn’t really matter where that pipe came from, PG&E has the responsibility to make sure it was constructed properly, that it was laid in the ground properly, maintained properly — that was their responsibility.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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Katie Worth

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