Industry, Regulators Fail to Properly Test Older Gas Pipelines, NTSB Investigation Finds

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The National Transportation Safety Board Aug. 30 called for stronger regulatory oversight and enforcement for older pipelines that have been largely exempt from comprehensive inspections and monitoring using the latest techniques.

In a final report capping a yearlong investigation into a fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in California, the NTSB made almost 30 recommendations, the most important of which calls for removing the “grandfather” clauses in current regulations that exempt natural gas pipelines installed before 1970 from most safety inspections.

The board said pipeline companies and operators should be required to install more remote control valves on older systems and to perform “in-line” inspections that use the latest technology to provide visual monitoring.

The report was adopted unanimously by the five-member board following a day-long staff presentation. The final report will not be available for a few more weeks and is subject to further revision, staff said.

The NTSB also recommended that the Department of Transportation conduct a thorough audit of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the chief federal pipeline regulator, to determine how well the agency is performing its oversight role.

PHMSA's ability to enforce compliance of safety standards should also be reviewed, the board said. PHMSA is part of the Transportation Department.

A summary of the NTSB's findings, conclusions, and recommendations was expected to be posted on the board's website after the meeting.

Other recommendations focus on the role of the California Public Utility Commission, which also received some criticism from the board for lax pipeline regulation in the past. Specifically, the CPUC's natural gas group should be empowered to enforce safety procedures and to assess penalties, the board said.

The board also questioned assurances from the natural gas industry that older systems, many of which are routed through highly populated areas, are safe. The industry needs either to verify through records that the older segments are safe or conduct new inspections, the board said.

California Experience Not Unique

The California experience could be repeated anywhere across the country, board members concluded. Of the 300,000 miles of natural gas transmission lines nationwide, approximately half was installed before 1970, NTSB staff said.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the watchword for state and federal regulators should be “trust, but verify.”

The investigation focused on the Sept. 9, 2010, pipeline explosion and fire in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno, Calif., just south of San Francisco, which claimed eight lives, injured 58 people, destroyed 38 homes, and damaged 70 others (198 DEN A-4, 10/15/10).

In the 90 minutes it took Pacific Gas & Electric, the owner and operator of the 30-inch pipeline, to shut down the gas flow, an estimated 47 million cubic feet of natural gas was released—enough to run 1,200 homes for one year, the board said.

The board was highly critical of PG&E's integrity management program for ensuring pipeline safety.

“Opportunities were missed that could have, and should have, prevented this tragedy,” Hersman said.

The NTSB staff concluded that the probable cause of the accident was faulty welding in several short sections of pipe that were pieced together when the pipeline was built in 1956, which were never inspected, or at least, have no records of inspection.

The triggering event was work by PG&E on electrical systems at a downstream compressor station that caused pressure fluctuations in the pipeline, the staff said.

The faulty welds could have been detected if PG&E had conducted hydrostatic pressure testing in the 47-mile pipeline, the staff concluded. Hersman expressed frustration that PG&E has been unable to provide any records of inspection on the pipeline.

CPUC pledged to conduct an audit of PG&E's integrity management program, to ensure that PG&E corrects any deficiencies that led to the rupture, and to ensure that PG&E's emergency response plans and procedures are greatly improved.

PG&E Promises Reforms

Following the hearing, PG&E President Chris Johns issued a statement saying the company will “fully embrace the recommendations of the NTSB and will incorporate them into our plans.”

Johns acknowledged that the NTSB's investigation revealed “an organization and culture that was not sufficiently focused on public safety.”

The utility currently has a $2 billion safety inspection program pending before the CPUC in response to the San Bruno accident.

Also, the CPUC has ordered the state's utilities to inspect all gas pipelines installed prior to 1970 for defects, and it is evaluating utility implementation plans that include valve automation and retrofitting pipelines to accommodate in-line inspection tools.

In addition, PHMSA is seeking comment on a proposal to expand the definition of high-risk areas that would expand the agency's jurisdiction, among other provisions (165 DEN A-6, 8/25/11).

CPUC Eyes Possible Fines, Sanctions

In a statement following the NTSB meeting, CPUC said it plans to evaluate the NTSB report to determine whether it needs to adopt rules to enforce the recommendations as part of its proceeding to set new rules for natural gas safety.

“We also expect by the end of the year to adopt a citation program that gives CPUC staff the ability to fine natural gas operators immediately if a violation is found,” CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said.

In December, the CPUC will release the results of its staff investigation into possible PG&E wrongdoing that led to the San Bruno explosion, “which could lead to significant fines and other sanctions,” CPUC said.

By Lynn Garner