If Your Gas Pipe Explodes, Who Ya Gonna Call? (p. 2)

Posted on behalf of Stewart Bell, PLLC on Sep 20, 2010 in Wrongful Death

In our last post, we discussed the San Bruno gas explosion and looked at some of the factors that likely contributed to it. Today, we want to focus more on the organizations and processes that work to ensure that houses aren't destroyed and residents aren't injured or killed because of a pipeline failure. While West Virginia does not have the population density that suburban San Francisco has, the state's aging gas pipes, as well as our rich mineral deposits and vast gas fields, make us just as vulnerable.

When a gas company plans a pipeline expansion, common sense would say that it does so in collaboration with city planners or developers - people or organizations that can predict the population density for that area. But, critics say, utilities plan in secret, with no opportunity for public input. The result, they say, is increased risk to residents .

When a pipeline is in place, there are a number of organizations responsible for keeping it safe: state government, federal government, and the utilities themselves. Coordination can be a problem, manpower can be a problem, and self-policing has been widely criticized as ineffective.

The California utility that owns the San Bruno pipeline reported to the press that it has spent more than $100 million over the past few years to improve its systems. It conducts routine surveys of its lines, looking for leaks and corrosion. The utility controls more than 47,500 miles of transmission and distribution lines. The company also reported that the two inspections of the San Bruno pipe over the past 12 months turned up no defects.

The federal government, under the auspices of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, writes and enforces the rules for interstate pipelines. State agencies do the same for pipelines that are solely within the state. Enforcement, though, translates into inspection, and the federal government right now has about 100 inspectors for 2-1/2 million miles of pipeline.

The burden then falls on the utilities, and, as publicly-held companies, they need to make a profit while they ensure the safety of everyone and everything that lives on top of their pipelines.

In our next post, we will look at how (and how well) the utilities monitor their own pipe networks.

Resource: Fox News "Aging Gas Pipes at Risk of Erupting Nationwide" 9/14/10

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