Feds question PG&E’s emergency response

Federal investigators are examining whether PG&E, whose natural-gas pipeline explosion killed at least eight people, had an adequate emergency response plan, a government spokesman said Wednesday amid disclosures that such plans are not available to the public and industry watchdogs.

An investigation into the Sept. 9 explosion and fire includes an examination into the company’s emergency response plan, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said.

What is clear is that emergency plans for natural-gas pipelines are effectively withheld from the public because the U.S. government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration itself does not have copies. Because the government does not have the plans, the public cannot use the nation’s open-records law to request them. The agency doesn’t ask natural-gas pipeline operators for the plans because it isn’t required to do so, agency spokesman Julia P. Valentine said.

Inspectors view plans while visiting facilities and leave them there.

Officials in San Bruno and San Mateo County said PG&E didn’t share its emergency plan for the pipeline prior to the disaster. “The city of San Bruno and I think many other cities are more acutely interested now in what are the locations and configurations of the lines and how are they operated and how can they be quickly shut off,” San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said.

The secrecy surrounding the plans does nothing to serve the public, said state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

“First, what good is an emergency response plan when the residents it’s designed to protect aren’t clued into the plan?” he said.

Hill plans to introduce utility reform legislation in December and will include the disclosure of emergency response plans.

A federal bill already introduced by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, also addresses the disclosure of information to emergency responders.

It is not clear, however, if San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management considers disclosure a priority. Agency spokeswoman Laura Adleman said “the most important thing to us is we are able to collaborate with PG&E.”

“We already have an idea of their response plans because we work together often in both real emergencies as well as training and exercises,” she said. “So it’s not necessarily about a large document so much as it’s about a good working relationship and knowing how we’re going to work together, which we do.”

The Assocated Press found that federal regulators didn’t have natural gas pipelines’ emergency plans when it filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of every emergency plan for every natural-gas and oil transmission pipeline in the U.S.


Under wraps

In the wake of the San Bruno explosion, questions have arisen about the adequacy of PG&E emergency response plans and who should have access to them.

What they are: Emergency response plans for disasters such as the San Bruno blast

Who has access to them: Governmental agencies — U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, California Public Utilities Commission — inspect the plans but do not keep records

Why the records are not kept: There is no mandate for the company to give the plans to the agencies for retention; PG&E says the plans contain confidential information.

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