For safety's sake

Gaps in PG&E pipeline info could carry implications for land-use decisions

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

A federal investigative hearing on the deadly Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno explosion triggered by the rupture of a high-pressure Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline was all about getting answers — but it has also sparked new questions.

For instance, why didn't the San Bruno Fire Department have maps of the 30-inch gas line running beneath the neighborhood where the blast destroyed 37 homes and killed eight people? Why did PG&E's records list that section of pipe as seamless when the federal investigation revealed that it actually consisted of shorter pieces of pipe, called pups, welded together? Why has PG&E been unable to produce records of close to 30 percent of its pipeline infrastructure, proving that the lines are in decent shape? And does the paperwork it has produced contain reliable information?

These shortcomings speak to a broader issue gaining attention as more fatal pipeline ruptures grab headlines. On a national scale, at least 59 percent of onshore gas transmission pipelines were installed before 1970, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety, making most of the infrastructure a minimum of four decades old.

Pipelines everywhere are getting older, and in some cases, weaker. Yet there tends to be a lack of awareness about the risks associated with the subsurface transport of hazardous materials, and as the San Bruno disaster demonstrated, there is often a lack of communication between utilities, local governments, and property owners about minimizing the risks.

These gaps are especially apparent in the process of approving new development projects. Tried-and-true systems are in place for indicating to contractors where they should and shouldn't dig to avoid making direct contact with underground infrastructure, but that information seldom takes into account what condition a pipeline is in. The general assumption is that the pipeline operator (in this case, PG&E) is keeping up with maintenance, and that it's safe to dig. Yet with the gaping questions surrounding PG&E's infrastructure in the wake of the San Bruno blast, there's a new level of uncertainty.

Pipeline safety isn't just a problem for utilities and pipeline regulators to worry about, according to a report issued by Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA), an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which brought together more than 100 experts in the field. It should also be on local governments' radar when they're making decisions about land use. Yet in San Francisco, this level of awareness seems to be absent.

According to PIPA, "Changes in land use and new developments near transmission pipelines can create risks to communities and to the pipelines." The hefty report contains an exhaustive set of best practices for planning near pipelines, many specifically targeting local governments. Priority No. 1 for local planning departments should be to "obtain mapping data for all transmission pipelines within their areas of jurisdiction ... and show these pipelines on maps used for development planning." The report also suggests taking special precautions in areas spanning 660 feet on either side of a gas-transmission pipeline; creating systems of communication so information can be readily shared between local governments, utilities, and landowners; and identifying emergency contacts who can halt dangerous excavation activities in case something goes wrong.

The Guardian sent e-mail queries to the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to find out if the city was adhering to any of the practices recommended by PIPA as the best ways to ensure safe planning near pipelines. Reached by phone, a spokesperson from Planning told the Guardian, "DBI is where you need to call."

Comments

Seems that all of this may lead to a PG&E bankruptcy.

Posted by Charley_sf on Mar. 13, 2011 @ 9:21 am

Government will add surcharges to fix the messes so that ratepayers get to subsidize PG&E profits, there will not be another PG&E bankruptcy.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Mar. 13, 2011 @ 9:48 am

It is the responsibility, under Federal pipeline safety law, that the operator (PG&E in this case) is responsible for assessing and mitigating risks to its pipeline. These risks can be from outside construction, they can be from the original construction method (as in San Bruno case) or they can be from inappropriate operation (also in the San Bruno case). It is not the case that nobody is responsible, PG&E is responsible - but it may be the case that PG&E is not fulfilling its responsibility.

Further, pipes definitely do 'care' about the proximity of third party construction. The extent of influence depends on the material and age, the proximity of construction and its depth. IN the case of SF, they have the best approach in the country for avoiding third party damage, as a result of adjacent street construction (long term notice of construction - up to 5 years- allows stakeholder to react to, protect and mitigate risks).

Finally the matter of data is very important. First the utility operates two major systems 1-Transmission (~2000 miles) and 2-Distribution (50-60,000 miles). All of the fact finding so far has been about the transmission system and the claim is that they have 70% of the data about this system. The requirement is that they have asset data, environment data and data about current and potential risks. The reality is that they have some data on 70% of their transmission system, but the fact that it is not complete means that they can not accurately assess the risks. This means that they do not have a COMPLETE data set on any sections of their Transmission network. As an example, the San Bruno line was poorly constructed but it was an overpressure event from inappropriate operation that caused the explosion. By law they should have had a method (equipment, training) to mitigate the impact of an over pressure event on the transmission network and they should have evaluated how that network would have reacted to an overpressure event. This means they should have known the state of welds in the system.

Now, the majority of he assets they operate are distribution pipelines located in almost any street in the area. Typically a gas utility has little or no data on distribution piping and thsi piping can be 150 years old.

Posted by Bob on Mar. 13, 2011 @ 11:33 am

Parkmerced's project and the recently noted new SFSU-Creative Arts Center show pipelines running on BOTH sides of the properties.

Interestingly enough the SF Planning Dept. ignored the issue entirely....

will the SFBOS do the same thing?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 13, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

It is no wonder that the Planning Commission has done nothing to foresee this; they passed on the EIR and Parkmerced expansion without blinking an eyelash, despite Kathrin Moore's substantive and detailed objections to the competence of both issues voted on. The four who voted for this mess are pro-development appointees of a pro-development mayor, and are hell-bent on Parkmerced's destruction to create a legacy of new housing units, no matter where they have to cram them or how much damage they do to thousands of people's lives, using buzz words like "urban infill" (as Moore pointed out at the recent hearing, urban infill does not comprise destroying one existing functional unit to build two or three more in its place, nor does it allow for destroying open space integrated into existing housing by adding more units there.) Not to speak of the fact that two of the pro-expansion Supervisors have taken significant donation of cash from the developers. Shame on them for this low political corruption!

Posted by Guest Michael on Mar. 13, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

Two days after the San Bruno event, Mr. Peter Darbee, President and CEO of PG&E was sent the following information:

Pipeline Environmental Monitoring System (PEMS)

Objective of PEMS:

1. PEMS is a product which, when permanently installed underground in close proximity to a pipeline, will constantly monitor the immediate underground environment surrounding the pipeline, the pipeline itself and its protection systems, including corrosion control systems, pressure monitoring and local ground disturbances such as construction digging. PEMS is primarily for use on direct and indirect High Consequence Area segments (HCA’s) of a pipeline as determined by Federal Regulation, such as the San Bruno environment. The actual number of defined HCA’s is not known. Current estimates are in the tens of thousands and the number is growing as urbanization continues above and around pipelines already in the ground.

2. The proposed system is already patented and uses well known and understood engineering principles, to provide real time, or close to real time (pipeline operator choice) control room warnings and/or alarms to changes in the immediate pipeline environment, up to and including actual pipeline leaks and/or ruptures. The warnings and alarms would carry GPS position information locating the event for emergency first responders.

3. PEMS will provide a significant improvement in the operating safety of pipelines carrying hazardous fluids. Beneficiaries: Public Safety; private and commercial property; sensitive natural environments; pipeline operators through reduced use of Company resources and a potentially substantial improvement in their relationship(s) with the Public and the Federal and State Regulating Organizations (e.g. Department of Transportation/PHMSA and State PUC’s).

4. PEMS will increase significantly the ‘comfort factor’ associated with operating a pipeline using constant real time monitoring (addressing past, current and future public concern regarding hazardous pipeline operations in urban environments).

PG&E has not replied to this submission of a completely relevant proposal.

Just how interested is PG&E in protecting the public, some of which are their very own customers?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 14, 2011 @ 8:54 am