There was tough talk and finger-pointing as well as gestures of condolence and signs of forward progress when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted three days of hearings into the gas pipeline explosion that killed 8 people and destroyed 37 homes in San Bruno.
The tough talk came from federal pipeline safety officials who say they will step in and play a major role in determining PG&E’s gas pipeline safety practices going forward, a not-so-subtle message to the California Public Utilities Commission which had been the lead regulator prior to the explosion.
The finger-pointing was mostly in the direction of PG&E, which was taken to task for not having automatic and/or remote shutoff valves on its gas transmission lines, for not knowing what kind of pipes it has in the ground, and for intentionally spiking the pressure on older urban gas pipelines like the one in San Bruno that exploded.
And then there was the bouquet of flowers and the private viewing room reserved for families of the victims of the explosion—small gestures of condolence and a reminder that the stakes are high as new safety measures are debated.
As for signs of progress, PG&E has pledged to add hundreds of automatic shut-off valves on its gas transmission lines, a step that could reduce the damage from future such explosions. And Congresswoman Jackie Speier, whose district includes San Bruno, said that PG&E committed in a meeting with her to notify customers who live within 2,000 feet of a high-pressure natural gas transmission line.
“PG&E is the new PG&E,” Speier told reporters. “I think it can become the gold standard for this country that all other operators will follow.”
IBEW: A Seat at the Table
IBEW Local 1245, which represents about 11,000 PG&E employees, had a seat at the table during the hearings.
Business Rep. Debbie Mazzanti, Local 1245’s representative on the NTSB panel, called the experience “an incredible education,” if somewhat stressful.
“I felt a level of pressure with it. I have felt very alone on more than one occasion in this whole thing,” she said.
And no wonder. Each party at the hearings had their own table: PG&E, the CPUC, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the City of San Bruno. And IBEW Local 1245.
“At every table there are at least six to eight chairs,” said Mazzanti. “At every table, every chair is filled. And then you have the IBEW table. And there I am,” said Mazzanti, who sat alone. “I guess I’m the man.”
Mazzanti said she was there mainly to monitor the proceedings, but on one occasion felt compelled to jump into the discussion. That moment came when the fire chief from the City of San Bruno testified that PG&E had never informed him that a gas transmission line ran through that part of San Bruno. Mazzanti was skeptical that PG&E should be held to blame for the fire chief’s lack of knowledge.
“We know based on testimony we got that the city enlarged a sewer line that literally ran parallel underneath Line 132 [the gas line that exploded],” said Mazzanti. “That work was done in 2008, so at least in 2008 the city must have been aware of that line. And there’s a water line that runs on top of Line 132.”
In hindsight, it seemed easy to know what PG&E should have done.
The company’s practice of intentionally spiking the pressure on older urban gas pipelines was “a wrong-headed approach to safety,” according to Richard Clark, head of the CPUC’s consumer protection and safety division, which had the authority to influence that policy prior to the San Bruno explosion—but didn’t exercise it.
Although the hearings were supposed to be part of a fact-finding investigation, Mazzanti said it felt to her like there was a predisposition simply to blame PG&E.
“The piling on was there, no doubt about it,” she said.
But she acknowledges that there are legitimate questions about whether PG&E has the manpower to do the work that needs to be done on its aging infrastructure.
“You’ve got to get people back in the trenches to get this work done,” she said.