Headlines have screamed “PG&E, PG&E, PG&E” in the year since the fatal San Bruno pipeline explosion, but the utility company is not the only entity that runs pipelines carrying hazardous materials under our feet.
There are nearly 6,000 miles of pipeline operated by private companies and public utilities that carry liquid petroleum products across the state’s mountains, valleys, towns and cities.
Those types of lines have received little attention because they are regulated by a different agency than gaseous ones, and they have much stricter rules. Under California law created in the 1980s, pipelines carrying liquid petroleum products such as gas, crude oil and jet fuel are regulated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Until recently, the California Public Utilities Commission had what critics described as lax regulations about inspecting and maintaining gaseous pipelines. However, the Fire Marshal’s Office and state law have long required liquid gas pipelines to be tested every five years using one of two rigorous methods — either running a robot called a pipeline inspection gauge, or “pig,” or by hydrotesting, which pumps pressurized water into the line, said Bob Gorham, chief of the fire marshal’s Pipeline Safety Division.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, said that’s among “the most stringent regulations in the country,” and the CPUC and other regulators should consider imposing it.
But the Fire Marshal’s Office says those strict regulations have stretched its staff thin. Currently, the Pipeline Safety Division has six inspectors to cover 5,800 miles of pipeline. It has five vacant spots, some of which have been open since 2003, said Gorham. The position starts at just $48,000, which makes it difficult to attract a professional engineer, and the state only gives the qualifying exam once every three years.
“It’s not working; it’s not adequate,” Gorham said. “It’s just a tremendous workload. You just hope you’re putting your resources to the right things.”
The CPUC had one inspector for every 11,000 miles of pipeline prior to the San Bruno blast. And though the inspection staff has since doubled, the CPUC expects inspectors to handle 5,000 miles of pipeline each, compared to the approximately 1,000 miles for each fire marshal inspector.
The Fire Marshal’s Office endured “our San Bruno” in 2004, when an unmarked Kinder Morgan pipeline in Walnut Creek carrying gasoline was struck by a contractor’s backhoe, killing five workers and injuring three more, and causing more than 500 gallons of gasoline to spill. Ultimately, investigators blamed the incident on inadequate project safety oversight and communication, and inadequate line-locating.
Since then, Gorham said his agency has been more aggressive about imposing penalties on rule violators — another difference between the Fire Marshal’s Office and the CPUC, which has been called lax about fining companies.
“We’re pretty much at the point where there’s no excuse for the operators not to know what they should be doing, so the tolerance for mistakes is not there anymore,” Gorham said.
Pipelines containing liquid petroleum products are regulated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
5,800 Miles of liquid pipelines in California
20 Miles of liquid pipelines in San Francisco and San Mateo counties
6 Liquid pipeline inspectors at Fire Marshal’s Office
5 Liquid pipeline inspector vacancies
1,000 Miles of pipeline per inspector at Fire Marshal’s Office
$48,000 Starting inspector salary at Fire Marshal’s Office
Source: State Fire Marshal’s Office