Boxer, Feinstein discuss pipeline safety at Senate hearing

Sen. Dianne Feinstein testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday before the Senate Commerce

Sen. Dianne Feinstein testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday before the Senate Commerce

California's U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein spoke at a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday on pipeline safety regarding last year's San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion.

The hearing, which featured testimony from top officials at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, PG&E, and pipeline safety advocates, was meant to provide an update and discuss efforts on the national level to reform the regulation and management of pipeline safety.

According to the Department of Transportation, over the past decade, there have been 42 serious gas pipeline incidents on average annually, resulting in an average of 14 deaths, 16 injuries and more than $32 million in property damage.

The San Bruno inferno erupted on Sept. 9, 2010 in the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood when a 54-year-old PG&E distribution pipeline ruptured.

It leveled the community, killing eight people, injuring 52 others, and destroying 38 homes.

“We don't want to see this happen again, this out of control horror that hit a beautiful, middle-class, strong community in our state,” Boxer said. “We want to spare that to everyone.”

The NTSB, which launched an investigation of the disaster, found that a “litany of failures” by PG&E and gas industry regulators created the conditions that caused the line to rupture.

According to the investigation, the results of which the federal board adopted in August, lapses in the utility's safety protocols and state and federal regulating agency's oversight of those protocols were largely to blame.

PG&E installed the faulty 28-foot section of pipeline in 1956, but its internal records inaccurately stated that the welded section was seamless, or unwelded.

The utility had never tested the line to determine the maximum pressure it could carry, and the section failed when pressure spiked after a component failure in Milpitas during maintenance activity.

“This accident and this tragic loss of life were entirely preventable,” Boxer said.

The Senate Monday passed a bill that would require companies to keep better records and install automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves on new and replaced pipelines.

It took an hour and 39 minutes before PG&E workers were able to stop the flow of gas through the ruptured pipeline by manually closing valves upstream and downstream from the break.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who is chairman of the subcommittee that held Tuesday's hearing, introduced the bill and Tuesday stressed its importance in his state, citing a 1994 pipeline explosion in Edison, N.J., that destroyed 14 apartment buildings.

“These tragedies remind us that we have a responsibility to keep our pipelines safe and reduce the frequency of accidents,” he said.

That bill is awaiting a vote by the House.

Feinstein, who said that the bill is a step in the right direction, also said that there are other problems not addressed by the bill and encouraged the committee to look further into the safety issues related to natural gas pipelines.

“There are a lot of reasons to worry about this, and there are a lot of reasons to continue to do extraordinary due diligence on this issue,” Feinstein said.

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