September 15, 2010

Explosion Underscores Aging Gas Pipe Problem

Less than a week after a gas pipeline exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno experts are raising concerns that the aging infrastructure used to carry natural gas throughout the United States could lead to similar disaster elsewhere.

On Thursday, September 9, a gas pipe exploded near the intersection of Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue in the California town, shooting a massive fireball that killed at least four people, injured more than 50 others, and destroyed dozens of homes. According to KGO-TV, an ABC affiliate in San Francisco, people as far as half a mile away reported feeling the "boom" and the heat caused by the explosion.

According to Associated Press (AP) Writers Garance Burke and Jason Dearen, "The tragic explosion"¦ has shed light on a problem usually kept underground: Communities have expanded over pipes built decades earlier when no one lived there."

"Utilities have been under pressure for years to better inspect and replace aging gas pipes--many of them laid years before sprawling communities were erected around them--that now are at risk of leaking or erupting," they added. "But the effort has fallen short. Critics say the regulatory system is ripe for problems because the government largely leaves it up to the companies to do inspections, and utilities are reluctant to spend the money necessary to properly fix and replace decrepit pipelines."

"If this was the FAA and air travel we were talking about, I wouldn't get on a plane," Rick Kessler of the Bellingham, Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust advocacy group, told Burke and Dearen on Tuesday. According to Kessler's group, a more than three-fifths of the natural gas transmission lines are more than 40 years old. The one that exploded in San Bruno was installed in the 1950s.

According to the AP, "Federal officials have recorded 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents since 1990, more than a third causing deaths and significant injuries"¦ Congress passed a law in 2002 that required utilities for the first time to inspect pipelines that run through heavily populated areas. In the first five years, more than 3,000 problems were identified."

Also on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the damaged pipe that led to the explosion was being sent to a Washington, D.C. based metallurgy lab, where it would be analyzed by investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Furthermore, NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart was advising people in and around San Bruno to contact the agency if they smelled gas in the vicinity of the blast location.

Hart also told Burke and Dearen that he expected the blast to serve as a wake-up call.

"It would surprise me if other states didn't see this and learn from it and be proactive with it," he said.


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