Sunday, December 26, 2010

[californiadisasters] San Bruno blast: Failures Tied to PG&E, Regulators

San Bruno blast: Failures tied to PG&E, regulators

Before the deadly natural gas blast hit his home in San Bruno, Bill Magoolaghan didn't even know that a major Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline ran nearby. He never noticed a string of yellow medallions, stamped into the pavement above the line, that warned workers not to gouge the pipe when digging.

Had he known, he said, he might not have cared.

"You figure it must be checked so carefully because it's so dangerous," said Magoolaghan, 47, who is living with his wife and four young children in a Belmont rental while they rebuild their burnt-out home.

"But then you find out, in reality, that it's not being checked carefully," he said. "And we have to pay for it with our lives and our skin and our houses."

Three and a half months after the pipe burst and sprayed flames through the neighborhood, the search for answers - and peace of mind - has revealed a chain of failures and compromises in the way PG&E operated and inspected the pipeline, as well as in the way the California Public Utilities Commission regulated its use.

The cause of the blast Sept. 9, which killed eight people and wiped out 38 homes, is still not known. But in a recent interim report, the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators were exploring the quality of so-called seam welds along the spine of the pipe - welds that PG&E admits it did not know existed and did not inspect.

Pipeline safety experts say disasters like the one in San Bruno tend to be the result of a series of breakdowns.

"Whenever there's a catastrophic failure, usually you have a perfect storm of things going wrong," said Glen Stevick, an expert in failure analysis of pipelines and a former UC Berkeley instructor. "One is that this happened in a populated area. You could have had this same event out in the open, and nothing would have happened."


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