Lawmakers should consider creating a federal standard to limit how close companies can build high-pressure pipelines to homes, the president of the California utility whose ruptured gas pipeline led to a massive explosion and fire that killed eight people said Tuesday.
Chris Johns, head of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, said in written testimony to a Senate panel that lawmakers should also consider formal safety benchmarks for pipeline operations, a reassessment of the adequacy of the technologies companies use to test the safety of pipes, and a broad review of the impacts of urbanization on the nation's gas transmission system. Johns' verbal summary of his testimony to the committee didn't include the proposals.
Consumer advocate Rick Kessler, vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said he welcomed a discussion with industry officials on a national standard for a setback or buffer zone between homes and pipelines. He said some counties are beginning to require setbacks between homes and pipelines, but the requirements vary.
The Sept. 9 explosion in suburban San Francisco destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and created a giant crater.
The pipeline was buried 4 feet under a residential street in San Bruno. When it ruptured, a 28-foot segment of pipe was catapulted out of the ground, landing 100 feet from the crater.
The accident has prompted several legislative proposals to beef up pipeline safety. An Obama administration plan sent to Congress would increase from $1 million to $2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm related to oil and gas pipelines. It also would pay for an additional 40 federal inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has 96 inspectors, but is authorized by Congress for 113 inspectors, Cynthia Quarterman, head of the pipeline agency, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's pipeline subcommittee. She said the agency is trying to fill the remaining positions as quickly as possible, but needs even more inspectors.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., questioned the need for additional inspectors given that some posts are unfilled.
Quarterman said that the agency was severely understaffed when she took over for the Obama administration.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, have proposed a bill to increase the number of inspectors to 200.
However, the pipeline administration only inspects interstate pipelines. States are responsible for inspection of intrastate pipelines like the one in San Bruno, although they follow federal regulations.
The Boxer-Feinstein bill would also require automatic shutoff valves on pipelines in densely populated areas to halt the flow of gas in the event of a rupture. It took gas company workers more than an hour after the San Bruno explosion to manually shutoff two valves to halt the flow of gas that was feeding the fire.
Safety advocates have been urging the automatic shutoff valves for pipelines for more than a decade, Kessler said.
Chris Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that whether automatic shutoff valves would have lessened the severity of the San Bruno accident is part of the board's investigation of the accident. He noted that San Bruno is the fourth pipeline accident since June that the board is investigating. He said one area the board will be looking at is whether there is a systemic problem with oversight of a program to inspect pipelines in densely populated areas.
Thune questioned the necessity of the administration's proposal to extend federal inspections to natural gas gathering pipelines in remote areas.
"It seems like the administration's goal is to regulate any and every type of pipeline," Thune said.
The number of people killed in the San Bruno accident increased to eight Tuesday. The San Mateo County coroner's office said it was notified of 58-year-old James Emil Franco's death Monday morning. Franco lived down the block from the source of the blast.