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'Litany of failures' cited in deadly San Bruno pipeline blast

August 30, 2011 | 10:10 am

San Bruno blast

A utility’s “litany of failures” combined with weak government oversight probably caused a gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno last year, federal accident investigators said Tuesday.

National Transportation Safety Board officials, meeting in Washington to determine the cause of the September 2010 explosion, said the problems uncovered during their investigation included poor pipeline welds, inadequate inspection by regulatory agencies and a lack of an emergency response plan that might have prevented the tragedy.

The San Bruno explosion is “the story of flawed pipe, flawed inspection and flawed emergency response,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, who chairs the NTSB. “It was not a question of if the pipe would fail, but when.”

Hersman also said Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which operated the pipeline, exploited the lack of oversight by state and federal regulators who mistakenly placed "a blind trust" in the utility.

NTSB investigators said Tuesday the explosion was triggered by an electrical problem at a control center in Milpitas that caused the valves that regulate pipeline pressure to open, allowing more gas into the line.

As the pressure built up, inadequate welds in a section of pipe ruptured, allowing 47 million cubic feet of gas to escape in a plume of fire. The volume represented enough energy to run 12,000 homes for a year.

Officials said Pacific Gas & Electric did not have an adequate emergency plan and took almost 95 minutes to shut off the gas spewing from the pipeline.

The NTSB contends a lack of automatic shut-off valves and shut-off valves that can be controlled remotely contributed to the slow response.

“This represents a failure of the entire system — a system of checks and balances that should have prevented this disaster,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, an NSTB board member. “The seam weld may have been the technical reason, but this was an organizational accident.”


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Photo: Flame roars from the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in September 2010. Credit: Karl Mondon / Contra Costa Times