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Stricter regulations proposed in wake of San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

September 27, 2010 | 12:39 pm

Standing at the crater that marks ground zero of the gas pipeline explosion that devastated the community of San Bruno earlier this month, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco) on Monday announced legislation that would mandate stricter regulations of gas pipelines nationwide.

Among other requirements, the proposed Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2010, which Speier plans to introduce Tuesday, would mandate the installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves in areas of high seismic risk and on other pipelines in high-population-density areas.

That provision of the bill is similar to one in legislation announced last week by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. However, while the Senate bill demands such valves "wherever technically or economically feasible," Speier’s legislation requires that the valves be installed wherever the secretary of Transportation deems them technologically feasible.

"I don’t think economics should play a role," Speier said Monday, flanked by the San Bruno fire and police chiefs and the city’s vice mayor and assistant city manager. "How many fewer lives would have been lost? How many fewer homes?"

San Bruno's mayor and city manager were on their way to Washington to testify before Congress on the Senate bill and were unavailable Monday.

Like the Senate bill, Speier's legislation would also mandate the use of internal inspection devices, called pigs, or comparable methods deemed equally effective in detecting corrosion, pipe stress and "otherwise providing for the safety of the pipeline."

If a pipe cannot be inspected with those technologies, the bill would prohibit operation at high pressure.

It took utility officials an hour and 46 minutes to turn off the gas feeding the Sept. 9 inferno, due to the pipeline's manual shutoff valves. Speier said she has been pressing Pacific Gas & Electric officials to disclose the existence and location of any automatic shutoff valves, and that she learned Monday morning that there are two in the counties she represents. She planned to meet with company officials Monday afternoon to learn more.

San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag spoke in favor of the bill Monday, saying that if an automatic or remote shutoff valve had been in place, firefighters could have gone on the offensive immediately. "We were in defensive mode," he said of the blaze, which took seven lives and destroyed 37 houses.

Speier, who said she planned to visit a burn victim at San Francisco's St. Francis Memorial Hospital on Monday afternoon, noted that she was speaking as a representative "of every neighborhood in this country that has a gas transmission line running through it."

Her legislation would also mandate disclosure to homeowners of transmission line locations if they are within 2,000 feet of such lines. Other provisions include: It would add risk of seismic activity and age of the pipeline to the factors used to determine whether pipelines are deemed high-risk; it would mandate that gas line operators provide pipeline location information and emergency response plans to regulators and emergency responders; it requires that pipeline safety standards be made available to the public free of charge.

Calling the explosion a "deadly and painful wake-up call," Speier called for swift action to rectify problems that emergency officials widely agree contributed to the severity of the inferno.

"I’m very supportive," Haag said. “We need to learn from this tragedy.”

Separate from her legislation, Speier said she planned to ask PG&E officials "to move this transmission line somewhere away from this neighborhood." Homes in the blast zone that are now occupied are getting gas from distribution lines, and Speier said the "donut of pipeline" in the heart of the community was "very rare."

Vice Mayor Rico Cabrera added that a number of homeowners with whom he has talked will only rebuild if the pipeline is moved.

A Times investigation published Monday revealed that PG&E’s leak rate was six times that of other operators of comparable size. Responding to that investigation, Speier said the California Public Utilities Commission should be put on notice.

"It’s a very important message to send to regulators that you don’t get a pass," she said, noting that lax regulation seemed to be emerging as a theme, much as it did in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  "If they had had six times as many leaks, regulators should have been out there asking why."

She applauded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans for an investigation of the blast and said that "I think he should start with the CPUC. Are they adequately funded? Are they adequately staffed? And what do they spend their time doing?"

-- Lee Romney in San Bruno

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