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Feinstein, Boxer propose tougher gas pipeline regulation in wake of San Bruno blast

September 22, 2010 |  4:19 pm

California’s two U.S. senators introduced a bill Wednesday that would impose strict new pipeline safety standards and add federal inspectors in the wake of the Sept. 9 natural gas explosion in San Bruno that killed seven people and burned 37 houses to the ground. 

The 23-page bill sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, would require manual valves to be replaced by automatic electronic valves, mandate in-line inspection devices and require federal officials to set standards for leak detection devices.

The bill, called the Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enhancement Act, would also double the number of federal inspectors who examine 217,306 miles of interstate pipelines that cross the country and increase the civil penalties for safety violations. There are 100 inspectors now. 

“The pipeline explosion in San Bruno was a tragedy that must never occur again in any American neighborhood,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The American people must be assured that the pipelines that crisscross the nation and run beneath their streets are safe.”

The pipeline that ruptured was a 30-inch-diameter underground natural gas transmission line that runs for 51.5 miles from Milpitas to San Francisco. The section that exploded, which was not on Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s list of the top 100 highest-risk sections, was installed in 1956.

The utility said it was unable to use in-line inspection devices, called pigs, in the pipeline because the line changes diameter. Pigs are considered the most reliable way to detect internal corrosion and weakening pipeline walls. PG&E inspects a quarter of its lines using pigs.

The fire from the explosion raged for an hour and 46 minutes, according to utility officials, before workers could shut off the manual valves on either side. The intense heat from the gas plume kept firefighters and police from the houses closest to the blast site. The delay has renewed calls for utilities to install automatic valves in densely populated areas.

The bill builds on legislation that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed last week.

It would also require pipelines that cannot be inspected with in-line devices to be operated at lower pressures. State utilities regulators have already ordered PG&E to lower the pressure by 20% on the pipeline that ruptured. PG&E, however, has warned that it could have trouble delivering enough gas to the San Francisco Peninsula during very cold weather.

The bill would also prioritize older pipelines in seismic areas for the highest level of safety oversight. PG&E’s pipelines on the peninsula are near the San Andreas Fault.

The senators visited the charred Crestmoor neighborhood in the days after the blaze. Last week, they urged federal regulators to order inspections of interstate natural gas pipelines in California.

-- John Hoeffel