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Tragedy should spur closer look at gas pipelines

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Sep. 14, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
September 14, 2010 5:54 pm
Workers examine pipeline blasted in the explosion that killed four people in San Bruno, Calif. (LiPo Ching/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

The inferno that engulfed a neighborhood last week in San Bruno, Calif., is the kind of scenario that pipeline safety advocates fear most. They know that pipelines similar to the one that ruptured and killed at least four people, injured 50 and destroyed more than 50 homes underlie many urban areas – and that laws regulating their safety aren’t as strong as they need to be.

In fact, the pipeline industry wants them to be even weaker. Federal legislation passed in 2005 now requires pipeline inspection every seven years; the industry wants that relaxed to 15 years.

While there might be room for changing the law in unpopulated or lightly populated areas – that seven-year requirement was an arbitrary one and is not being widely observed – even tougher rules would make sense for the most densely populated areas with older pipes.

In San Bruno, the steel pipes that exploded were more than 50 years old, roughly their life expectancy. They were in an area that had a failure rating deemed “unacceptably high.” Areas like that need more intensive inspection, not less.

Another problem in San Bruno was the complete lack of automatic shutoff valves that could have limited the damage. Those should be mandatory in populated areas.

Old pipelines like the one in San Bruno are all over the country. When they were built, they were in unpopulated or lightly populated areas, but the suburbs encroached. So when they fail, an accident can have catastrophic results. Of the 2,840 gas pipeline accidents considered “significant” since 1990, more than a third resulted in death and injuries.

In this state – which has 43,000 miles of pipelines – a devastating explosion in 1999 killed two boys and a young man in Bellingham’s Whatcom Falls Park. That tragedy, caused by an Olympic Pipe Line rupture, led to tough rules in Whatcom County, which now prohibits construction within 660 feet of pipeline.

Although there are no such federal or state setback requirements, the tragedy did spur Congress to put tougher restrictions on pipeline operators. Even so, as one safety expert put it, pipeline safety only went from “woefully inadequate” to “inadequate.”

In the South Sound, many households are served by natural gas companies. Most of us don’t live near the larger, 30-inch pipelines like the one in San Bruno; households and businesses are served by smaller lines. Residents should call their local fire department if they detect a “rotten egg” smell that is the obvious sign of a gas leak.

While the threat of a massive gas explosion is small, it’s big enough that Congress should re-examine pipeline safety legislation – particularly as it applies to older pipes in populated areas. And local governments should seriously consider the kind of restrictions Whatcom County has imposed on new construction near pipelines.

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