One year after the San Bruno pipeline disaster

Photo by John Upton, from the Bay Citizen

Tomorrow (September 9) marks the one-year anniversary of the natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno. The explosion ignited a fire that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes, and now, utility giant PG&E has been under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board for its role in the blast.

Last week, federal officials released a report finding PG&E responsible for the explosion, saying poorly welded pipelines and inadequate inspections were some of the organizational failures that led to the disaster.

The Bay Citizen’s John Upton has been following this story for the past year, and he recently joined KALW’s Holly Kernan in the studio for an update. 

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HOLLY KERNAN: John, take us back a year in time: what happened on September 9?

JOHN UPTON: Sure – it was just a year ago, a typical night in San Bruno, a weeknight, it was around 6pm. People were making their dinner, mowing their lawns and so forth. All of a sudden, this tremendous explosion ripped apart the neighborhood, killing eight people, destroying many homes. The explosion erupted into a huge fire that burned for the next 90 minutes – an hour and a half of this huge inferno.

At the time when the explosion happened, not many people really knew what was going on. PG&E, which owned the gas line, it did know that it had a problem out there, but it did not even call police or fire. It didn’t alert anybody to the fact that they had this huge gas pipeline explosion.

They sent some uprighters out to try to shut down the flow of gas to the valve, but the workers who they sent out were not qualified. PG&E employee who lived in the neighborhood saw what was happening, figured it out, and he basically of his own initiative decided to head out there straight away and do what he could. And after the fire had been burning for 90 or 95 minutes, he managed to switch off the flow of gas. And once the flow of gas had been shut off to the severed pipeline, basically the firefighters, the 900 or so emergency responders that were there battling the fire, very quickly got on top of the blaze and were able to extinguish it.

KERNAN: And what was PG&E’s response when asked why they didn’t respond more quickly?

UPTON: PG&E one year later still has not addressed this issue. One of the issues that federal investigators have found contributed to the severity of this accident was the fact that PG&E didn’t have a plan in place for responding to this sort of disaster. Here we are, one year after the disaster, and according to the NTSB and PG&E even, such a plan still has not been developed.

KERNAN: When we last spoke with you, the federal hearings for PG&E had just concluded. Now that the National Transportation Safety Board has released its report. There are more details to fill in what happened that day – can you recap what those findings are?

UPTON: We can take this right back to 1956 when PG&E installed this pipeline. The pipeline had a lot of defects. The welding was not up to standard; it was only half as strong as it should have been. And from 1956, from the very first time that pipeline was laid, any inspection would have revealed these weaknesses. The section of pipeline – not only was it poorly welded, but it was made of very poor quality steel.

Then what happened on September 9 is PG&E had been doing some electrical work at one of its facilities nearby. The work actually knocked out the power supply at that particular station. What that caused was basically, they lost control over the amount of pressure in the pipeline. So emergency backup systems did kick in but what we did see was a very mild spike in the pressure running along that pipeline. That minor amount of pressure on that pipeline, which had been so badly neglected over 50 or 55 years…

KERNAN: And improperly inspected as the report points out…

UPTON: Not only improperly inspected – simply not inspected. It just was not inspected. The NTSB is very clear that if PG&E had ever taken a look at this pipeline they would have known the problems.

So this mild spike in pressure affected this pipeline, and then all of a sudden it tore a hole in one of the poorly welded seams that runs along one of the poorly assembled sections of this pipeline.

The amount of pressure in these pipelines is so great that once that hole was formed, basically what happened was the pressure tore apart all sorts of welds and other areas around the pipe. So the crack propagated, is what the scientists say.

KERNAN: What has PG&E’s response been and what kind of changes have they made to address the concerns?

UPTON: Well it’s worth noting that this very same pr oblem affected a pipeline in Rancho Cordova in 2008. There was an explosion that killed one person. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated that accident, and they came away with many of the same conclusions that they have come away with from this San Bruno investigation. So we have a situation in which PG&E has not learned from its past mistakes.

But I guess most importantly they have come up with a proposal to replace and inspect vast amounts of their gas pipelines. Because the reality is we don’t know where this problematic pipeline came from in the first place. So similar materials could have been used to assemble gas pipelines all throughout northern California.

KERNAN: Is there any way that the public can get access to the information about what kinds of pipelines are underneath our own streets and houses and neighborhoods?

UPTON: Your listeners can call a PG&E hotline and ask where the nearest pipelines are to their residence. This information before the San Bruno explosion was kept very secret. PG&E said that it was a terrorism risk; if terrorists knew where the pipelines were, they could blow them up. But the fact that San Bruno’s fire department had no idea that this pipeline even existed has basically forced PG&E to become more transparent with the public about the condition and location of its pipelines.

And in the wake of this accident, PG&E has proposed spending $2.2 billion modernizing its pipelines and has suggested that customers should pay 90% of that cost through increased utility bills.

Obviously there’s a bunch of people, a lot of utility and consumer advocates, who are enraged by this. They feel that PG&E should be forced to go to its shareholders to recover the costs associated with this repair work.

KERNAN: And here we are a year later – there’s a proposal to begin to remedy some of these problems that may exist all over northern California.

UPTON: Oh all over northern California. In fact, you would probably find a lot of these problems throughout the country. The most vulnerable pipelines that most closely resembles that which ruptured beneath San Bruno have had their pressures reduced under instruction from the California Public Utility Commission to reduce those risks. PG&E has begun inspecting some of its pipelines that are similar to the one that exploded in San Bruno, but this is a very intensive job. It requires a lot of excavation, a lot of new pipelines, a lot of deployment of new technology, and there’s no easy fix. This is a consequence of 50 to 60 to 70 years of just complete neglect of PG&E’s pipeline network, so it’s not going to be something that’s remedied quickly.

KERNAN: John, last week there was another explosion on a different kind of pipeline in Cupertino that destroyed a condominium – luckily there was nobody in it at the time. But what does that reveal about how progress is being made in terms of trying to diagnose these pipelines and figure out how to make them safe.

UPTON: I think it reveals the scale of the problem in front of us. The pipeline that exploded beneath San Bruno is what’s called a transmission pipeline. It’s a very big pipeline, it typically carries gas to a power plant or something like that. The pipeline that exploded in this Cupertino condo on the other hand was a plastic pipe that was only designed to carry gas into peoples’ residences for uses of stoves and so forth.

After the explosion happened, there’s a remarkable similarity to what happened in San Bruno – it took PG&E one-and-a-half hours to shut off the flow of gas so that firefighters could douse the flames.

KERNAN: Why? Why does it take that long?

UPTON: There is a systemic problem within PG&E; it does not have a plan for responding to emergencies…

KERNAN: Not even now? Not even a year later?

UPTON: Not even one year later. It is a systemic problem that has been identified by the National Transportation Safety Board dating back to the accident in Rancho Cordova in 2008. The company simply ahs not stepped up and prepared for emergencies such as this.

The fact that the pipeline was a plastic pipeline and so different to the pipeline that exploded in San Bruno really highlights just the vast, vast seriousness of the issues facing PG&E because this was a completely different type of pipeline. But again we’re finding out that this pipeline was built using materials that are susceptible to this sort of accident in decades past. And until now, nothing has been done to fix that problem. So we are all really very vulnerable to these types of explosions, and despite the positive steps that have been undertaken in the past year by PG&E and the regulators, we are still living in tremendous risk as the Cupertino explosion has demonstrated.

You can find a map of the gas transmission pipelines here. And for information about any specific pipeline in your neighborhood, call PG&E at 1-888-743-7431.

John Upton writes about infrastructure and the San Bruno explosion for The Bay Citizen.