Monday, February 28, 2011

[californiadisasters] San Bruno Blast: Federal Hearing Could Affect Laws

San Bruno blast: Federal hearing could affect laws

Federal investigators will convene an extraordinary, three-day public hearing this week on the deadly natural gas blast in San Bruno - an inquiry that could affect pipeline safety laws in California and around the nation.

The fact-finding hearing, which starts Tuesday in Washington, D.C., will include the sworn testimony of 10 top employees of the San Bruno pipeline owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which has been under intense scrutiny.

Among the areas the National Transportation Safety Board plans to delve into during the hearing are how PG&E operates its pipelines, how it assesses threats to its system, and whether the company is sufficiently regulated by state and federal authorities.

At the same time, the safety board plans to release thousands of pages of documents gathered since the Sept. 9 blast, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The documents are expected to include lab tests on the failed pipe and transcripts of interviews.

First inquiry in 11 years

The safety board has not held a public inquiry on the safety of either liquid or gas pipelines since 2000, after two disasters killed 15 people and set in motion major changes to federal law. Pipeline safety experts and Bay Area lawmakers foresee another round of overhauls - one that may hinge in part on this week's hearing.

"It's a real opportunity to get to the technical core of the problem that occurred in San Bruno," said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, whose district includes the blast site. "What I'll be looking at carefully is recommendations that we can pursue in California as regulations to create a safer gas transmission system."

Almost 30 witnesses have been summoned to the hearing, which will be telecast online. The testimony will be divided into five panels, each with a topic area, and will follow an opening statement by lead safety board investigator Ravi Chhatre.

Although the day-to-day operations of PG&E and its regulators are a prime focus, one panel will deal with issues that have received less attention: whether blast victims and local authorities in San Bruno had enough information about the pipeline and its closeness to homes and businesses and whether they were prepared for an accident.

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