Press Release of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer

For Immediate Release:
October 18, 2011  
Washington D.C. Office (202) 224-3553

Boxer Statement on Pipeline Safety at Senate Hearing on San Bruno Explosion  

Washington, D.C.
– U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) today helped lead a Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the need to strengthen pipeline safety after last year’s San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion and other recent pipeline safety incidents around the country. Below is Senator Boxer’s opening statement as prepared for delivery:

At 6:11 pm on September 9, 2010, a PG&E transmission pipeline exploded beneath a densely-populated neighborhood in San Bruno, California.  

Tragically, 8 people lost their lives and another 52 were injured. Our hearts go out to all the victims and their families.  

The inferno also destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70.  

Let me show you some photos of the devastation–the entire neighborhood was leveled.  

Only a few chimneys, charred vehicles, and debris were left behind.  

Most disturbing of all, this accident and this tragic loss of life were entirely preventable. The NTSB’s investigation reveals that there were numerous points at which this accident could have been prevented, if it were not for serious lapses in PG&E’s safety protocols and the CPUC’s and PHMSA’s oversight of those protocols.

First, PG&E installed a faulty, poorly welded pipeline back in 1956 that would not have met industry standards at the time. Its flaws would have been visible to the naked eye. Proper quality control procedures could have prevented the installation of the pipeline, or in-line inspection could have detected its flaws at a later date.  

Second, PG&E’s poor recordkeeping led them to believe they had a seamless pipe in this location – which didn’t even exist in 1956. A proper integrity management program or pressure testing would have uncovered this error and at the very least, required a 30 percent reduction in the maximum allowable operating pressure for the pipeline.  

Third, prior excavations of this pipeline found various data errors, leaks, and other problems – but PG&E did nothing to address this, and did not even update its records to include these discoveries. Again, a proper integrity management program would have raised red flags about the pipeline and warranted further testing.  

Fourth, poorly planned electrical work at the Milpitas terminal triggered the pressure surge that led to the rupture of the faulty pipeline. Proper work clearance procedures and contingency planning would have allowed PG&E’s control center to anticipate this potential complication and reduce the pressure in the pipeline before it was too late.  

Finally, once the accident occurred, it took PG&E an hour and a half to shut off the gas, while the fire continued to burn like a blowtorch, increasing the amount of damage. Proper emergency response protocols and the use of automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves would have reduced this time significantly, saving homes and possibly even lives.  

This litany of failures was not just attributable to PG&E, but also to serious failures by state and federal regulators.  

According to the NTSB’s report, the CPUC audited PG&E in 2005 and again only 4 months before the explosion, yet “failed to detect the inadequacies in PG&E’s integrity management program,” even though “many of them should have been easy to detect.” Meanwhile, PHMSA repeatedly gave the CPUC an A+ for its safety oversight program, despite its “ineffectiveness.” In the words of the NTSB, this “raises strong doubts about the quality and effectiveness of enforcement at both the Federal and state levels.”

Unfortunately, although the San Bruno accident was particularly severe, it was not at all unusual. According to the Department of Transportation, there have been an average of 42 serious gas pipeline incidents per year over the past decade, resulting in an average of 14 deaths, 16 injuries, and over $32 million in property damage each year.  

Just within the past few months, we have seen one pipeline accident after another in the news.  

Let me read you a few headlines from my home state of California:

• “Roseville gas leak spouts flames on road”
• “6 Sanger homes evacuated when gas line ruptures”

• “Blast rocks Cupertino home; PG&E crews find seven pipe leaks”  

And here are other headlines from across the nation:

• In Pennsylvania – “Allentown, Pa., Explosion Leaves Five Dead”
• In Wyoming – “Natural gas pipeline explodes near Gillette”
• In Ohio – “Gas Explosion Lights Up Sky in Columbiana County”

• In Kentucky – “Clark County Gas Co. Gas Line Rupture Heard Several Counties Away” 

After the San Bruno accident, I joined Senator Feinstein in introducing legislation to strengthen pipeline safety, and I am delighted that similar legislation passed the Senate last night.  

But even after this legislation is signed into law, there will remain a tremendous amount of work to be done. I look forward to hearing today about what PHMSA is doing to strengthen its regulations and enforcement, and what PG&E and the pipeline industry are doing to strengthen their own safety programs.  

We don’t want to see anything like this ever again. So we must act.