Feinstein, Boxer introduce bill to bolster natural gas pipeline safety standards

California’s senators Wednesday introduced a bill that would enact strict new pipeline safety standards and add federal inspectors in the wake of the Sept. 9 natural gas explosion in a San Bruno neighborhood that killed seven people and burned 37 houses to the ground.

The bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, would require automatic electronic shut-off valves wherever possible, mandate in-line inspection devices or equivalent tests, and require federal officials to set standards for leak detection devices.

Called the Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act, the measure would also double the number of federal inspectors responsible for examining 217,306 miles of interstate pipelines to 200 over the next four years. And it would authorize civil penalties of up to $2.5 million for major violations.

“The pipeline explosion in San Bruno was a tragedy that must never occur again in any American neighborhood,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The American people must be assured that the pipelines that crisscross the nation and run beneath their streets are safe.”

On Wednesday, the last three victims, who had been presumed dead for days, were identified by the coroner. Gregory Bullis, 50, his son William, 17, and his mother, Lavonne, 85, were at home when the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline ruptured about 100 feet away.

The pipe was a 30-inch-diameter underground transmission line installed in 1956. As an intrastate pipeline, it is inspected by the California Public Utilities Commission. The PUC has nine engineers who inspect natural gas pipelines. Julie Halligan, deputy director of consumer protection and safety, said, “If there are more requirements, we will need more people.”

Terry Boss, the senior vice president at the Interstate Natural Gas Assn. of America, said it is important to learn why the pipeline ruptured to develop appropriate remedies, suggesting that California’s senators demand that the National Transportation Safety Board move speedily. “I would recommend them to keep pressure on NTSB to quickly come up with even a preliminary cause,” he said.

But Carl Weimer, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said the bill includes many requirements that the advocacy group has pressed for and “takes some major steps forward to address some of the issues that have come to light because of the San Bruno tragedy.”

PG&E has said that it was unable to use in-line inspection devices, called pigs, in the pipeline because of changes in its diameter at various points. Pigs, which move through the inside of pipelines with sensors, are considered the most reliable way to detect internal corrosion and flaws.

The Feinstein-Boxer bill would require the use of pigs at least once every five years. Boss said it is very expensive to retrofit pipelines for pigs and some sections would never be able to use them.

Utility officials said an hour and 46 minutes elapsed before workers could shut off the manual valves on either side of the explosion. The delay has renewed calls for utilities to install automatic valves in densely populated areas.

The bill would require them “wherever technically and economically feasible.”

Boss said this issue has come up before. “As far as human safety is concerned, they really don’t do much,” he said, noting that any deaths and injuries usually occur when the gas explodes.

But Feinstein said she believes that automatic valves should be feasible. “In today’s era we have electronic water faucets,” she said.

The bill would also require pipelines that cannot be inspected with in-line devices either to be inspected by other methods that are just as effective or to be operated at lower pressures. Feinstein noted that this requirement might have prevented the San Bruno explosion.

The bill would also prioritize older pipelines in seismically active areas for the highest level of safety oversight. PG&E’s pipelines in the San Francisco Peninsula are located near the San Andreas fault.