On a Thursday evening, Mayor Jim Ruane cuts a ribbon on the new music store that opened in downtown San Bruno. Shortly after 6 o’clock he leaves the store, looks up the hills and terrain of the city, and sees an immense ball of fire. He gets into his car and drives down Jenevein Avenue. He thinks the fire must be in a residential area. He receives a call from his son. What the hell is that? A plane just went over, his son says. Jim tells his son he is not sure what’s going on, but he is heading to the location right now. He arrives to the scene of the fire. Gas spews out of the ground and the flames look as if they could touch the sky. The scorching heat cracks the glass on the surrounding fire trucks and begins to melt the bright red paint. No one can get close. All the residents can do is wait.
On September 9, 2010 a portion of a gas pipeline known as Line 132 exploded in San Bruno and caused a fire that killed eight people, injured nearly 60 others, destroyed 38 homes and damaged several others.
“It was horrific,” said San Bruno Mayor, Jim Ruane. “They couldn’t turn off the gas that evening for an hour and forty-six minutes…the city was traumatized and we’re still traumatized.”
The fire that broke out created flames that were upwards of 200 feet in the air. Air tankers flew over the scene and dropped a retardant and water over surrounding neighborhoods just before the sun went down to keep the fire from spreading. Had that not happened, Crestmoor Canyon, a neighborhood across the street from where the blast took place, might have fallen victim to the fire as well.
A Broken System
Shortly after the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation that was completed August of 2011 – almost a year after the pipeline explosion.
Line 132 is owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E). The NTSB report found that the pipeline had an incomplete seam weld upon installment in 1956, which did not meet industry standards then, and resulted in the explosion that occurred in 2010. It is believed that the standards were either “overlooked” or “ignored” since the faulty weld would have been visible when it was installed.
The first responders included San Bruno’s Police and Fire Departments, who arrived within minutes of the explosion. “We probably had 400 to 600 first responders all around the Bay Area, and even from San Francisco airport to help us get things under control,” said Ruane.
Responders evacuated over 370 homes and individually escorted residents to the homes that were still standing within 48 hours. “We tried very hard, with the help of the Red Cross and a lot of other organizations to get them back into their homes,” added Ruane.
PG&E’s response time, however, was not as prompt. NTSB notes that the utility company took 95 minutes to turn off the gas and isolate the rupture site, which further contributed to the damages and risked the lives of San Bruno residents and the responders on site. The utility did not have a detailed plan for large-scale pipeline emergencies, and because of its limited system to acquire accurate data, the utility was not able to swiftly find the exact location of the break.
Failure of an earlier detection of the broken weld was also due to the fact that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) – the state pipeline safety regulator – also did not detect PG&E’s shortcomings as a utility. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) supervises interstate pipelines and conducts on-site evaluations on an annual basis to see if state regulators are adhering to PHMSA standards. It was determined that their inspection methods need improvements as well.
“We believe that they’re culpable in this,” said Ruane. “They were identified, and the NTSB reported, as being culpable and having a too cozy relationship to the utility that they’re supposed to regulate.”
A Short History In Pipeline Incidents
Just two years before the San Bruno incident, a house in Rancho Cordova was destroyed due to an explosion and fire caused by a natural gas leak. Not only was the pipe improperly installed and not intended for operational use, but PG&E’s response was also deemed inadequate by the NTSB.
When the utility received the call of a gas odor outside the home, PG&E sent a person that was not qualified for the job, which resulted in an unnecessary delay. One person was fatally injured, five others were hospitalized, and several homes were damaged.
Another PG&E gas pipeline leak in San Francisco in the 1980s showed the utility’s inadequacy when responding to emergencies. Inaccurate records, ill-trained and ill-equipped first response dispatchers and unnecessary delays resulted in the contamination of an eight-square block as well as the evacuation of approximately 30,000 people.
“They just had an explosion a month or so ago in New York,” said Ruane. “A lot of these [incidents] are a little different than what we had, but it brings to the surface all of the things that are buried underground that are in fact in need of substantial repair.”
The Road To Recovery
It’s a warm Saturday afternoon. Families gather and get ready to fire up the barbecue grill, but there is hesitation. Is it going to be okay to barbecue? asks a San Bruno resident.
“People are still traumatized about what happened and we’re trying to rebuild…but that’s becoming a tough chore,” said Ruane. “We’re getting through it…but it’s taken all of this time.”
Three years since the pipeline explosion, several homes have been completely rebuilt and more are on the way. Water, sewer and storm drain lines are being replaced and a complete rebuild of San Bruno is anticipated to be completed in another year.
In addition to the $50 million that was paid by PG&E to rebuild the city, a trust fund of $70 million was also created – at PG&E’s expense – for the residents of San Bruno. The money will be set up in a not for profit that will be in charge of scheduling hearings with the residents to decide how to use the money.
“Whether it is grants, scholarships, or a new city recreation center,” said Ruane, “there’s all kinds of things out there that people have said that they’d like to see to help us get through all of this, but that has yet to come to fruition. Nobody’s decided what to do with that money yet.”
As of April 1st, PG&E has been indicted for criminal violations of the federal Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968. The utility is being accused of “knowingly” and “willfully” failing to properly maintain the transmission pipelines, including Line 132. The utility has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and while the company has stated it holds itself accountable it does not believe any employee intentionally violated the regulations. Dates for the trials are still pending from the judge.
“All we want is a safer utility and hopefully a Public Utilities Commission that is going to act responsibly,” said Ruane. “…It’s so important for us, not only in San Bruno, but statewide to make sure this never happens again anywhere. This was absolutely horrific and we never want to see that happen in any other community.”