Fatal Blast Puts Focus on Web of Gas Pipelines

  • by Matthew Cardinale (atlanta, georgia)
  • Inter Press Service

Television stations across the U.S. broadcast dramatic images of firefighters spraying water on the gigantic fires which followed the explosion on Sep. 9 and destroyed 37 homes, killed eight people, and injured over 50 others.

'A full investigation must take place in the coming days to determine the cause of this horrible accident, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has already dispatched a team to California,' Speaker of the U.S. House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement.

The NTSB is investigating the cause of the ruptured Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline, which is still unknown. However, residents of San Bruno complained of smelling a gas leak for weeks, and another PG&E pipeline explosion in suburban Sacramento, California, had occurred only months earlier with no citation against the company.

Natural gas is used by 165 million homes and businesses through a 2.3-million-mile distribution and transmission pipeline delivery system, which supporters say is overwhelmingly reliable. But some public officials are worried.

'The recent explosion of a gas pipeline illustrates how dangerous these pipelines are,' Georgia State Sen. Vincent Fort wrote in a letter to Georgia Public Service Commission Member Chuck Eaton, requesting a study. 'Since 1990, more than 2,800 gas pipeline accidents have been reported, with over a third causing death.'

'As you know, the issue of natural gas pipeline safety has become critical in my district since Georgia Power is placing a 36 inch natural gas pipeline in the heart of many neighbourhoods,' Fort wrote.

Most pipeline incidents are due to digging by builders, cable companies, and utilities, while others are caused by pipeline corrosion, operator errors, and equipment malfunctions.

The California disaster also raised questions about lack of government oversight of the natural gas industry.

An investigation by the New York Times found the number of fines issued by the federal agency in charge of pipeline oversight, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has decreased by 40 percent since 2004. A third of all enforcement cases opened during the past eight years had not been resolved, with some unresolved cases dating back to the 1990s.

The newspaper reported that the state of Georgia had only been able to collect on half of the fines it issues. Georgia allows companies to take a training course instead of paying a fine for a first violation.

And even when fines are paid, they are typically so minimal that they do not deter companies from further violations.

Bill Edge with the Georgia Public Services Commission told IPS it does have trouble getting some companies to pay fines, usually involving construction companies that are insolvent or go out of business. Many of these companies failed to contact the state before digging in the ground to ensure they do not hit a pipeline.

Georgia has been more proactive than other states in replacing aging pipelines, although ratepayers saw an increase in their energy bills to pay for the repairs.

'We've replaced over 90 percent. We have eight inspectors... inspecting pipes. We're doing all we can to ensure the pipes are safe in Georgia,' Edge said, adding, 'We can't guarantee we won't have another incident.'

Georgia paid the state's largest gas utility, Atlanta Gas Light (AGL), to replace 2,000 miles of pipe over 12 years. The programme was instituted in the 1990s after the PSC documented over 20,000 gas leaks across the state, including at the State Capitol building.

To date, AGL still has some 344 miles of old pipelines that need to be replaced, mostly in Atlanta.

And that should be a concern for residents. The San Bruno pipeline is one which 'was designated in 2007 to be a high- risk section with an 'unacceptably high' potential of failure and was scheduled for replacement by 2013,' according to Stan Wise, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Meanwhile, in the state of Oregon, activists are fighting 600 miles of new natural gas pipelines which would carry liquified natural gas (LNG). LNG is natural gas brought over in liquid form, on ships from overseas, from countries like Russia, Indonesia, and Qatar.

'It's a 36-inch [thick] pipeline with non-odorised gas at a pressure that is seven times the San Bruno pipeline that exploded earlier this month,' Olivia Schmidt, a community organiser with the Anti-LNG Coalition, told IPS.

'When they [citizens of Oregon] learned about this horrible tragedy in the Bay Area, it heightened concerns already there about public safety,' Schmidt said.

The Anti-LNG Coalition is pushing for safe, renewable alternatives to heating homes and businesses, such as solar and wind energy.

'Now that we've seen this horrible disaster - which is one of many in the U.S. - why are we putting ourselves at risk for this?' Schmidt said.

In Oregon, she said, 'The conversation is not how do we fix and upgrade existing infrastructure, but how do we generate an economy around cleaner sources of fuel which will serve us better in the future?'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service