Calif. gas explosion shows need for updates

SAN BRUNO, Calif. —First, the pipeline exploded. Then the flames, like a blowtorch, set the neighborhood overlooking San Francisco Bay ablaze.

Flaming chunks of asphalt hurled into the air from the blast blew through the roof at Bill Magoolaghan's house. As he watched from a nearby hillside in San Bruno, one question came to his mind: Why can't someone stop the tower of fire?

"The gas flames were still shooting 300 feet into the air," he recalled thinking, 40 minutes after the Sept. 9 explosion.

One reason is that the line was not equipped with remotely operated or automatic shut-off valves that would have halted the gas within minutes of the accident — devices that federal safety officials have recommended to industry and regulators for decades.

An Associated Press investigation found that the utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., agreed as far back as 1997 that remotely operated valves did a better job of protecting public safety than manual ones. But it opted against using them widely across its network of high-pressure transmission lines, saying they weren't necessary or required.

When the flame was finally halted 89 minutes after the explosion, residents were left to survey the damage: eight dead, dozens injured and 55 homes left uninhabitable. The explosion also focused attention on the condition of the nation's pipelines — some aging and many, like San Bruno, running beneath towns and cities.

The accident, the AP found, also highlights a troubling pattern: A pipeline explodes. Federal investigators call for safety improvements. The government leaves it largely to industry to make safety decisions.

The result is that safety measures are adopted sporadically, sometimes decades later — if at all.

Now, as federal investigators prepare for a March hearing on the explosion — the first on a pipeline accident in a decade — lawmakers are pressing for sweeping reforms to a patchwork system of safety regulations.

"It's after an accident that we find there were shortcomings," said Deborah Hersman, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents. "Unfortunately, we've had to learn that lesson too many times."

The industry and regulators from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the nation's 2.5 million-mile network of gas and liquid pipelines, say they have made vast improvements in recent decades, noting that the number of fatal accidents has dropped as the network expanded dramatically.

While the NTSB is in charge of investigating such accidents, regulators or industry do not have to adopt its recommendations.

An AP analysis of accidents dating to 1969, when the NTSB began investigating pipeline accidents, shows that the agency has made similar recommendations time and again, including on utilities' failures to draft appropriate emergency plans, mark pipeline locations or adequately inspect risky stretches of pipe.

The NTSB is looking at the same issues in San Bruno, but pipeline safety advocates say the case of the shut-off valves provides the clearest example of how a weak regulatory system can jeopardize public safety.