NTSB Recommendations On San Bruno Put Pressure On Congress, Administration; Keystone XL Decision Coming

October 2011, Vol. 66 No. 10

The pipeline safety recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Aug. 30 puts significant pressure on both Congress and the Obama administration to respond to the problems discovered as part of the NTSB investigation of the PG&E San Bruno explosion in December 2010.

Eight persons were killed and many others injured as a result of that accident. The NTSB recommendations go way beyond the legislation Congress has begun to pass through committees and in the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued on Aug. 24.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a pipeline safety reform bill on Sept. 8 a few days after returning to Washington from the summer recess. Called the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011(H.R. 2845), the bill came a week after the NTSB released its final conclusions on San Bruno. The explosion was caused by escape of gas from a fracture in a defective piece of pipe installed in 1956. PG&E's integrity management program, which the NTSB called "deficient and ineffective," should have caught the defect, but did not.

The NTSB was also sharply critical of the PHMSA which released an ANPR on Aug. 24 which sets the stage for possible regulatory changes to the transmission integrity management program (TIMP) authorized by Congress in 2002 and put in place by PHMSA in 2003. The TIMP requires interstate pipelines to test segments running through “high consequence areas” (HCAs) and repair any potential problems.

The NTSB recommendations focus on PHMSA supervision of the TIMP but also push enhancements of many other pipeline safety rules, such as exemption from hydrostatic testing for pipelines built prior to 1970. The defective PG&E segment which ruptured in San Bruno was exempt from hydrostatic testing, which would have probably found the defect. The NTSB recommended that the Department of Transportation provide considerably more oversight to PHMSA supervision of the TIMP in addition to directives to PHMSA itself in the areas of control room operation, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, installation of shutoff valves, provision of pipeline data to local emergency responders, expanded inline testing, drug and alcohol programs and on other topics. The board also asked for elimination of the pre-1970 pipeline exemption from hydrostatic testing.