Remembering San Bruno

Today, September 9th, is the 4th anniversary of the pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California that left 8 people dead, 66 injured, and the Crestmoor neighborhood in ruins. Our thoughts are with the residents and leaders of San Bruno as they remember those who were lost four years ago and continue their reconstruction, healing and advocacy for improvements in pipeline safety.san_bruno_02-2

In four years, there’s been lots of reconstruction. The neighborhood has new underground infrastructure. Twenty-four new homes have been rebuilt and 17 damaged homes repaired. More work is slated for the next year, though it may be another 3-4 years before everything is completed.

The blunders of PG&E, however, are far from being resolved, and so much remains to be done to insure that the horrors endured by the people of San Bruno are not repeated. Many of the important safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board have not yet been enacted. Federal prosecutors filed a criminal indictment against PG&E. The state regulator has proposed an unprecedented fine of $1.4 billion, with the vast majority slated to go to the state general fund, and few measures to ensure ongoing safety initiatives are completed with the kind of oversight and assurances needed. PG&E recently announced its intention to appeal the proposed fine.

You may have noticed that this is yet another blog post commemorating a pipeline disaster. After each horrific event, the community says “May this never happen again!” And yet, it does happen again. And again. The industry says it shares our goal of getting to zero incidents. And yet…

  • Integrity management programs (like PG&E’s) rely on the thorough, complete, and competent work of pipeline operators to know everything about their systems and the environments in which they operate and to identify and manage risks, with occasional regulatory inspections. Clearly more stringent and more frequent oversight is needed.
  • Thousands of miles of gathering pipelines in rural areas are entirely unregulated.
  • Exemptions abound for requirements to ‘call before you dig’ to avoid excavation damage to pipelines.
  • Protections for the environment where pipelines cross rivers and elsewhere are woefully inadequate.
  • The public still cannot get access to basic information about where all the local pipelines are, how big they are, and what they are carrying, or whether the operators or first responders are prepared to deal with a pipeline failure.
  • No new significant rulemakings on pipeline safety standards have been issued in more than four years. It’s taken more than 3 years and counting for previously-published advanced notices of rulemakings to move forward to the rulemaking stage. We are hopeful that the proposals will eventually enact many of the safety improvements recommended by the NTSB and asked for by the communities most recently affected.

We could go on and on with our list of what needs to change. The Pipeline Safety Trust has made great strides forward in the fifteen years since the Bellingham explosion , and continues to push for greater public and environmental safety. But our efforts need to be multiplied. Multiplied through people paying attention to these issues and more resources going toward pipeline safety efforts; through legislators and regulators taking their jobs seriously and holding operators accountable; and through the industry being honest about what needs to be done, transparent about what they are doing, and diligent in following through.