San Bruno blast examined in Senate hearingsBy Annette Fuentes, Katharine Mieszkowski
San Bruno leaders went to Washington on Tuesday, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee held a legislative hearing on pipeline safety.
In the wake of the Sept. 9 gas pipeline explosion that has now claimed its eighth victim, federal legislators are considering several proposals for shoring up the safety of the nation's aging pipeline system.
On the federal level, senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have introduced legislation that would increase the number of federal inspectors of pipelines, while the Obama administration has proposed increasing the maximum fines for serious safety violations.
Among those testifying at the hearing on Tuesday were Christopher Johns, president of Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Paul Clanon, executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, the state regulator, and Jim Ruane, the mayor of San Bruno.
Johns dedicated most of his testimony to the horror of the tragedy and what PG&E has done since to try to help its victims and restore public confidence, like inspecting its pipelines. But he also made some recommendations for how the nation might do more to improve pipeline safety beyond the legislation that's already been proposed, including "providing for formalized benchmarking of safety practices among pipeline operators" and "creating a national standard for set- backs of high-pressure pipes from residential areas."
CPUC's Clanon said the disaster "may be the largest transmission explosion in suburban/urban U.S. history," but noted that he could not reveal much about the ongoing investigation of the San Bruno blast because the federal National Transportation Safety Board was the lead investigator.
But he did enumerate the steps his agency took in the days after the blast, including doing an accelerated leak survey of all gas transmission lines in PG&E's service area and evaluating records of response times for customer leak complaints.
Clanon reiterated that the CPUC had created an independent review panel, and among its mandates was investigating PG&E's spending on pipeline safety and replacements since 2005. He said the agency would look at the need for utilities to use automatic shut-off valves and "smart pigs" for pipeline inspections.
In his testimony, Ruane said, "we will leave it to the experts" to determine why this explosion happened, saying that he had come to Washington to "give voice to the residents of San Bruno whose hearts were broken on the awful evening."
In further San Bruno-related developments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down California's request for disaster aid to help victims of the explosion in San Bruno, the Associated Press reported.
While FEMA will reimburse the state for up to 75 percent of the firefighting expenses associated with the blast, it determined that state and local governments and PG&E can cover the cost of the recovery.
Copyright ©2010 Bay Citizen. Published 09/28/2010.