In Wake of San Bruno, PHMSA Calls Oversight of IM Programs "Lacking"

February 2011, Vol. 66 No. 2

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on March 1-2 in Washington may push Congress to renew failed efforts from the fall of 2010 to upgrade pipeline safety laws. The hearings will air the NTSB's preliminary findings from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) pipeline explosion in California last September where seven people were killed.

Recommendations from the NTSB in January to PG&E, the state of California and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) grew out of the NTSB's belief that PG&E conducted a faulty risk analysis on the pipeline segment at issue leading to a miscalculation of Maximum Allowable Operating Pressure (MAOP). But the NTSB did not conclude that the error led to the explosion. The exact cause has not been determined.

When the NTSB announced its recommendations in early January, it said its examination of the ruptured pipe segment and review of PG&E records revealed that although the as-built drawings and alignment sheets mark the pipe as seamless API 5L Grade X42 pipe, the pipeline in the area of the rupture was constructed with longitudinal seam-welded pipe. The NTSB suggested that the seam-welded sections may not be as strong as the seamless pipe that was indicated in PG&E's records.

In response, Kirk Johnson, PG&E vice president, gas engineering & operations, answers: "The NTSB noted that it does not know at this time whether records discrepancies played any part in the San Bruno accident." He adds, "PG&E is giving these recommendations close and immediate attention. We have been undertaking an intensive review of our pipeline records, scrutinizing and verifying thousands of documents to confirm the quality of our data."

Terry Boss, senior vice president at INGAA, seconds Johnson's point that the NTSB has not found the cause of the accident. He doubts that incorrect data on pipe strength used in MAOP calculations led to the accident and describes that kind of recordkeeping error as "not compelling."

Critical language
One of the NTSB recommendations was that the PHMSA issue an advisory bulletin to all gas and hazardous liquid pipelines warning them about the importance of assessing risks and threats as part of an integrity management program. The PHMSA did that on Jan. 4. However, the language in that bulletin was critical of the industry, going way beyond what may or may not have happened in San Bruno, ticking off numerous insufficiencies the PHMSA feels is bedeviling integrity management programs.