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Natural Gas Pipeline Failure Proves Fatal, Raises Questions - P.1

A major explosion that rocked a San Francisco suburb late last week has drawn attention towards a nationwide issue: New construction expansion over decades-old utility gas pipeline infrastructure leaves Maryland communities as well as others throughout the country vulnerable to explosions and utility companies open to wrongful death claims. The San Bruno fire is bringing necessary public visibility and urgency to the fact that utility companies must take a more proactive approach in replacing piping in danger of leaking and erupting.

Critics claim the regulatory system in place relies too heavily on utility companies to conduct inspections, and that the companies are reluctant to eat into profitability through proactive preventative pipeline maintenance.

The September 9th incident in San Bruno, CA that torched a neighborhood and killed at least four people is still under investigation. The exact cause of the pipeline rupture that ignited an immense firestorm is unknown. The pipeline's owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., has set aside $100 million in funds to provide residents affected by the disaster.

Vulnerability to this type of disaster is not isolated to California. All communities with aging pipelines are potentially at risk. The pipe involved in the San Bruno explosion was more than 50 years old, which is roughly the average life expectancy for steel gas pipes of this nature. The explosion that killed four people and injured others was just the latest of multiple fatal infrastructure failures the U.S. has experienced recently, referencing the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the 2007 Manhattan steam pipe explosion. The Manhattan pipe was more than 80 years old when it finally blew.

San Bruno's pipeline had been installed in 1956 at a time when the neighborhood was smaller and homes more spread out. Suburbs have expanded and densified in recent decades, precipitating the problem.

In 2002, congress passed a trailblazing law requiring utility companies to run inspections on pipelines under heavily populated locations. As a result, more than 3,000 problems were proactively identified in the first five years after the law was passed. Though great information to have, the law didn't go so far as to require utilities to disclose if or what repairs were eventually made. Also, lobbyists for the utility industry have since been successful in taking some teeth out of the law by altering it to say inspections are only necessary once every 10-15 years, depending on the situation.

In our next post, we will continue this discussion by addressing why flaws in the system persist despite governmental regulation.

Source: Associated Press "Aging gas pipes at risk of explosion nationwide" 9/14/10

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