Washington—U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the need for Congress to improve pipeline safety in the wake of the September 2010 San Bruno explosion that killed eight.
The oversight hearing came one day after the Senate unanimously passed the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act, a bill that drew heavily from legislation introduced by Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), including a provision that requires older pipes operating at high pressure—such as the one that exploded under San Bruno—be strength-tested to establish safe maximum operating pressures.
Further information on the bill that passed the Senate on Monday is available in this press release. Senator Feinstein’s full testimony follows:
“I happened to be at home around the evening news time, turned on the news and saw this explosion. And I watched it. And I watched it for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and 39 minutes.
What’s interesting is the explosion didn’t abate. There was a lot of discussion: Did a plane taking off from San Francisco International crash there? What happened? And no one really knew.
Well, I went to the scene on the Sunday after the explosion with the then-CEO and Chairman of PG&E, and looked at the scene and it was one of—as Senator Boxer’s chart showed—absolute devastation, with people who were shocked and shattered and couldn’t believe that this huge transmission line was running right under the streets of a residential subdivision.
We actually saw the part of the line and you could see the outside weld. One of the problems was the weld was only on one side and it went both circularly as well as longitudinally.
So there are a number of questions.
First, how did a pipeline owned and operated by a 106-year-old utility and regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission—in compliance with federal safety standards—blow up without warning?
And second, why did the fire rage so long?
The National Transportation Safety Board—and that’s an agency that continues to impress me, they’re straightforward, there’s no guile, they say it like it is, and they’re really to be commended—well, they’ve completed an investigation of the explosion. And the report concludes that the pipeline failed along a faulty and incomplete seam-weld when pressure spiked to unusually high levels.
The NTSB found this accident could have been prevented, and I think that’s what is important to us.
And the report reaches a simple conclusion: No one knew whether the pipeline under San Bruno was safe. Not the utility, not the state regulators and not the federal regulators.
The first problem was that PG&E’s records of the pipeline under San Bruno were wrong. They showed a seamless pipe when in fact the pipe had a seam. Because no seam was recorded, the strength of that seam was never inspected.
Second, because the pipe was installed before 1970—when pressure testing for new pipes was established—the pipeline had never undergone a strength test, a pressure test.
Like 61 percent of all pipelines in the United States, the pipeline had been grandfathered. Sixty-one percent of all pipelines have been grandfathered, meaning regulators and the industry assumed it was safe to continue operating the pipeline at pressures used in the past.
No safety buffer was established, as would have been established during a normal pressure test that pushes the pipe to 125 percent of the approved Maximum Allowable Operating Pressure.
In fact though, the San Bruno pipe failed when pressure spiked just above the historic operating levels, and far less than 125 percent above historic operating levels.
The third problem was that the pipeline had never undergone an inline inspection with a smart pig. A smart pig may have found both the existence of the unreported seams as well as their faults. Like many older pipelines, this pipe had too many twists and turns to be inspected and had never been upgraded to allow for such an inspection.
Fourth, the pipeline had inaccessible manual shutoff valves. First responders didn’t know how to cut off the gas and utility employees were stuck in traffic as the inferno raged, devastating a once-idyllic neighborhood.
So let me be clear: The problems that led to tragedy in San Bruno are not unique to that neighborhood or that pipeline. They are widespread throughout the United States.
Many older pipelines in urban areas have inaccurate and incomplete records, have never been pressure tested or inspected by smart pigs, and lack automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves capable of limiting damage following a rupture.
At the NTSB’s recommendation, California law—and Governor Brown has just signed it—requires now that utilities throughout the state establish a traceable, verifiable and complete set of pipeline records. Thus far, utilities throughout the state have found incomplete records for as much as 30 percent of the system. So almost a third of the system with 38 million people in it have no records.
I really thank the committee for including in its pipeline safety bill a nationwide review, which Senator Boxer and I proposed in our bill. I think this will go a long way and I want to thank you for it.
The NTSB also found that 61 percent of all transmission pipelines in America were grandfathered from current pipeline strength tests, such as hydrostatic pressure tests, under DOT regulations. So, 61 percent is grandfathered.
I am pleased that the committee has accepted the amendment worked out with Senator Paul requiring that all pipelines that have never undergone a pressure test undergo a viable and effective strength test. These tests would verify the safety of current maximum allowable operating pressures and establish pressure safety buffers on older pipes for the very first time.
The Department of Transportation should also consider ordering untested pipelines to lower their pressures to establish a safety buffer, as the California Public Utilities Commission has chosen to do.
The bill would also require deployment of automatic shutoff valves on new and replacement pipes. I believe we should require these valves on all pipelines, as California has done now, but requiring them on new pipes is at least a step in the right direction.
Bottom line: the San Bruno tragedy may have been prevented had the seams been properly recorded and inspected, or had the pipeline strength ever been established with a pressure test.
And as you know, and I had the pleasure of talking with the new CEO this morning, Mr. Earley, and there is another problem, and it is plastic pipe. There are 1,200 miles of PG&E’s plastic pipe that the company is now going to pull. I believe there have been some 11 accidents with this pipe that, as Mr. Early described to me this morning, under pressure, underground for some period of time, that pipe becomes brittle. And therefore a rot, a change in the ground can rupture it and then you have a gas leak. And so there have been I think 11 accidents in California from that pipe.
So I would just like to say to this committee, first of all, I think your first step has been at least been partially accomplished. The bill was hotlined, it has passed the Senate, I think that is very good news.
But I would really encourage you to look further. This is expensive for the companies, and I know it’s expensive for them. But, we’re earthquake country. We have 38 million people. These pipes are all underground, they’re in dense places. All throughout San Francisco, a relatively old city when it comes to cities in California.
So there are a lot of reasons to worry about this and I think there are a lot of reasons to really to continue to do extraordinary due diligence on this particular issue.
So senators, the three of you have made a major step forward. And I, for one, am very grateful, and I thank you.”