Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane, and PG&E President Christopher Johns were among the speakers at the subcommittee hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which counts California’s other senator, Barbara Boxer, as a member.
The hearing dealt primarily with the Sept. 9 rupture of a 30-inch natural gas transmission line in San Bruno’s Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood that sparked a massive explosion and fire that killed eight people, injured more than 50 others, and destroyed 37 homes.
During the two-hour hearing, committee members focused on what might have caused the rupture of the gas line, how long it took to cut off the flow of gas that fueled the ensuing inferno, and how to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.
Boxer said she “asked for this hearing because we can’t move forward until we really look at what happened here.”
Feinstein, speaking as a witness instead of from her usual position as a member of the Senate, was the first to address the subcommittee and talked about her experience first learning about the disaster.
“I was watching television in my home in San Francisco when on the tube it flashed information about the explosion,” Feinstein said.
“It was apparent after watching this that the fire didn’t diminish. It became almost an incinerator-type fire,” she said. “This was a quiet residential zone, and suddenly it was turned into something that resembled a war zone.”
Ruane also described the horrific scene in the minutes after the explosion.
“Residents ran for their lives with just the clothes on their backs,” he said. “I immediately drove to the scene, then helplessly watched from afar as the gas line spewed unabated until it was capped.”
Ruane said a large crater still runs through the area and “sits as a grim reminder of the tragedy we experienced.”
Feinstein and Boxer last week introduced the Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2010, a proposal Feinstein said she hoped would improve inspections and provide greater accountability for the operators of the pipelines.
Feinstein said inspections by state and federal officials need to be increased, saying that about 100 U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspectors look at about 217,000 miles of interstate pipelines.
That equates to having “each inspector responsible for 2,000 miles” of pipeline, she said.
“That’s the distance from San Francisco to Chicago,” Feinstein said.
Boxer–who asked several questions of Johns, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher Hart, and other speakers–said pipeline safety was an urgent issue that “has implications for everyone.”
She repeatedly brought up the issue of automatic or remote shut-off valves as a solution that could have helped minimize the damage caused by the fire.
During Hart’s summary of the NTSB’s preliminary investigation into the blast, he said it took PG&E crews about 90 minutes after the first report of the blast to manually shut off two separate valves to stop the flow of gas to the site of the explosion.
“There’s no question that if the valve had been turned off sooner, it would’ve caused less damage,” he said, adding that one of the things the NTSB will look at is what led the state regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, to authorize the use of manual valves in the area.
CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon said the commission is “going to look at ourselves hard in the mirror” and has established an independent review panel to look at the disaster and offer suggestions for how the commission might have acted differently.
Johns said PG&E usually puts automatic shut-off valves “where they make sense” and said the issue “is something I think all (energy) companies need to be looking at, where the best places are to put them.”
As for the investigation into the official cause of the blast, Hart said the NTSB is hoping to produce a final report within 12 months.
A 28-foot section of the pipe was taken to Washington to undergo a metallurgical examination that will consider all possible causes, including corrosion or damage from a past excavation in the area.
There have been no reports of construction work in the area on the day of the explosion.
“I don’t think we can wait” for the final report to come in before taking action, Boxer said.
She said she looked forward to working with her colleagues to pass a bill on the issue in the near future.
“I want to be able to look back at this time where it can be said ‘That’s when they made sure it never happened again,'” she said.
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News