The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

September 12, 2013

Pipeline safety chief says his regulatory process is 'kind of dying'


“To me, he was refreshingly candid,” she said. “The industry has a lock on PHMSA. It has a lock on Congress. And the public’s interest gets dramatically watered down.”

Speier began having doubts about PHMSA after a 30-inch section of pipe ruptured in San Bruno at 6:11 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2010. The explosion generated a giant fireball that went on for 95 minutes because it took that long for gas line operator Pacific Gas & Electric to reach the manual shutoff valves.

The pipe had been installed in 1956 and was substandard and poorly welded, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found later. Because it was grandfathered under PHMSA’s safety laws, it wasn’t subjected to the pressure testing that newer pipes must undergo.

The NTSB’s investigation also found widespread failures of PG&E’s operations, maintenance, record-keeping systems and emergency response. It issued a total of 39 recommendations, including 13 to PHMSA. As the third anniversary of the explosion approaches, PHMSA has yet to finish implementing any of the recommendations, according to the NTSB.

One of those recommendations was for remote shutoff valves to be installed on energy pipelines near suburbs, dams or other areas where an explosion would have grave consequences. Safety advocates had been arguing for remote or automatic safety valves since the 1970s, but the oil and gas industry always objected, saying the cost was too high and false alarms could shut down a pipeline, disrupting the flow of oil or gas.

On the first anniversary of the tragedy that rocked her district, Speier introduced legislation designed to implement many of the NTSB recommendations, including the call for remote shutoff valves.

But the law Obama signed several weeks later was a compromise bill — the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011. It was praised in its final form by the American Petroleum Institute, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and other industry groups. It was far weaker than Speier’s legislation, especially when it came to the remote shutoff valves that might have reduced the death and destruction in San Bruno.

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