PUC, PG&E Investigate Complaints of Gas Prior to Explosion

As homes still smoldered in a San Bruno neighborhood after a gas line ruptured and sparked a massive inferno Thursday, residents in the area said they had complained about a gas smell for weeks.

People who live in the in the Crestmoore neighborhood told reporters thay had complained to Pacific Gas and Electric about the smell of gas in the area and wondered why the utility had apparently not done anything about it.  Late Friday, the California Public Utilities Commission established a toll-free number and an email address for anyone who has information on a natural gas smell in the San Bruno area in the weeks before Sept. 9 explosion.  The number is 800-789-0550 and the email address is SBFire@cpuc.ca.gov.

MSNBC posted an article that said steel gas mains are drawing the attention of regulators across the country. It sites failure of pipes like the one here triggering action in other states. A map of pipelines across the country is included.

PG&E President Chris Johns said at a news conference Friday morning that they are looking into the reports and will go over their records from the phone calls about the complaints.

"Right now, we haven't got confirmation about that, but we have records that we are going back right this minute to try to confirm what exactly those phone calls look like and when they occurred, and we will report back as soon as we know something," Johns said.

Tim Guiterrez, who lives in the neighborhood, said he was one of those who told PG&E about a distinct smell of gas. Guiterrez said a representative from the utility was in the neighborhood last week and told people to shut their garage doors and stay inside as they looked into the complaint.

Waiting in the wings of all the investigations are the victims desperate to know if their homes survived the flames.

State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno, also heard reports from people who says they had alerted the utility of gas odors in the neighborhood before the disaster.  Hill says the residents "deserve to know if PG&E used the correct procedures" leading up to the explosion.

State Senators Alex Padilla and Mark Leno also jumped into the investigation fray. They announced plans for a hearing into the cause of the explosion.  They also say they want to see how similar events can be prevented in the future. Padilla is chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and Senator Leno is chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee. The senate review is supposed to begin immediately with hearing scheduled for next week.

"This horrible accident is a wake-up call that California needs to do more to protect the public and meet the highest safety standards.  I look forward to an in-depth review into what caused this tragedy and what lawmakers and regulators can do to prevent similar tragedies in the future," Padilla said.

 Dozens of homes caught fire in quick succession at 6:15 p.m. Many residents said they ran for their lives from a wall of flame and raining asphalt.

The utility that operates the 30-inch diameter line said it was trying to find out what caused the steel gas pipe to rupture and ignite. Federal pipeline safety inspectors were also on the scene Friday afternoon.  "It was just an amazing scene of destruction," National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher Hart told the Associated Press.

By Friday evening state officials said In all, 38 homes were destroyed. That number is down from the 52 homes listed as destroyed late Thursday night.  Seven more suffered serious damage and dozens more had some damage. The fire zone spanned 15 acres. A Google representative alerted NBC to this map which marks the firelines.

Friday night state officials stood firm on the death toll.  They said four people were dead. They also said 52 patients were treated for burns and smoke inhalation; four of them suffered critical burns. Four firefighters were also treated for smoke inhalation.

Fire crews went door to door Friday searching for more victims. They said some of the homes were still too hot to search and would have to wait until Saturday.

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From the Associated Press:

Compared to the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines across the country, accidents are relatively rare.

In 2009, there were 163 significant accidents involving natural gas pipelines, killing 10 people and injuring 59.

Transmission lines like the one that burst in San Bruno deliver natural gas from its source to distribution lines, which then carry it into neighborhoods before branching off into homes.

Over the past two decades, federal officials tallied 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents nationwide -- including 992 in which someone was killed or required hospitalization, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Those accidents killed 323 people and injured 1,372.

Experts say the nation's 296,000 miles of onshore natural-gas lines routinely suffer breakdowns and failures.

More than 60 percent of the lines are 40 years old or older and almost half were installed in the 1950s and 1960s, according to a recent analysis by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Bellingham, Wash.

Most of the older pipelines lack anticorrosion coatings that are prevalent in the industry today, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the trust, which was set up following a 1999 explosion that killed three people in Bellingham.

Below is a fire official walking a Southern California producer through a home to check that the home is safe from gas leaks.

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