Rules proposed after gas pipeline disasters

An increase in pipeline accidents, such as last week’s deadly gas explosion in San Bruno, could be curbed by newly proposed federal regulations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday proposed changing inspection and maintenance rules related to pipelines, including gas transmission and oil lines, and increasing fines for violations.

Fines for safety violations would increase and safety whistle-blowers would receive new protections under the draft rules. The department is also proposing hiring 40 additional pipeline inspectors over four years.

The proposals are partly a response to recent oil spills from pipelines in the Midwest.

The regulations are also being heralded as a potential fix for the type of high-pressure natural-gas pipeline explosion that killed at least four people and destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno last week.

Experts characterized the improvements as important but minor.

“It’s a good foundation,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of Seattle-based nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust. “It doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.”

The proposals are part of a scheduled legislative update.

Pipeline accidents have risen since Congress in 2002 passed the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act, which required energy companies to focus inspection work on populated areas. Since then, already-aged pipes have grown older and new neighborhoods have sprung up over them.

Nationwide, an average of 55 onshore natural-gas transmission incidents were reported annually in seven years following 2002, department figures show.

In the seven years before the law passed, an average of 35 such incidents were reported annually.

Locally, the number of pipeline incidents affecting PG&E’s network skyrocketed from one or two per year in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to five last year and 10 this year, figures from the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust show.

The law required energy companies to focus on populated areas, but contained provisions to defer some maintenance.

Using the pipeline law, PG&E secured a waiver needed to avoid $2.5 million in safety work on a corroded 36-inch transmission pipeline beneath planned sports fields near Tracy. Tracy later dumped the sports field plans.

Under the 8-year-old law, PG&E planned to begin a flurry of gas transmission pipeline inspections in urbanized areas next year to meet a late-2012 deadline, company statements to regulators show.

Paperwork filed with the state shows that the maintenance and inspection work would result in a rate increase for PG&E customers. By delaying the work until the latest possible years, PG&E helped delay a spike in natural-gas prices for its customers.


Governor giving ‘priority’ to probe


SAN BRUNO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped in San Bruno on Wednesday to survey the damage caused by a pipeline explosion firsthand, vowing to keep the investigation transparent and hold the parties involved responsible.

The wreckage of the 37 homes destroyed last week after a 30-inch natural-gas pipeline ruptured into a fireball was the backdrop for the visit.

Schwarzenegger, who was joined by state Sen. Leland Yee and Assemblyman Jerry Hill, discussed the blast, which left four people dead, with members from the National Transportation Safety Board, CalFire and PG&E officials.

Calling the San Bruno fire a “priority,” Schwarzenegger said the investigation into what happened, whether a problem or fault in the pipe, will remain transparent.

“There is no hiding of information,” Schwarzenegger said. “The only way to learn from this is by looking at it and making changes so it doesn’t happen again.”

Standing near the massive crater left behind by the explosion, the governor expressed his condolences for the victims of the fire, but praised the quick response from local fire departments, emergency personnel, and neighbors and volunteers.

“Quick action in the first few hours is what counts,” he said. “This community responded. My prayers go out to the victims and their families.”

A state of emergency was declared Friday by Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado while Schwarzenegger was on a business trip in Asia. Schwarzenegger said he has spoken with President Barack Obama about receiving federal aid as well.

PG&E has already pledged $100 million to help families and San Bruno recover from the disaster.

The city is already in “full recovery mode,” according to San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane. An estimated 271 people have been allowed back in to their homes. He said the focus now is on those homes that are “completely gone.”

“This is why we practice [disaster response],” Ruane said. “We practice, practice, practice for a job we hope we don’t have to do. We are still here, and I’m really proud of the entities involved.”

Andrea Koskey


New regulations

A draft of new federal pipeline-safety rules proposed Wednesday:

  • Potentially extend urban inspection requirements to entire pipelines
  • Hire 40 additional inspection and enforcement personnel over four years
  • Increase maximum penalties for serious violations from $1 million to $2.5 million
  • Increase data available for federal pipeline programs

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

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