Skip to main content

NTSB chief concerned about rash of pipeline cases

Joan Lowy - Associated Press

WASHINGTON – A rash of pipeline accidents across the country — including one in San Bruno, Calif., last September that killed eight people — has raised safety concerns and overburdened federal investigators, a top safety official said Thursday.

It's too soon to say whether the five accidents the board is investigating indicate widespread safety problems in the pipeline industry, but investigators are looking for recurring problems, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said.

"This has been a particularly bad year for pipeline accidents," Hersman told reporters at a briefing on a three-day hearing scheduled for next week on the San Bruno accident. "This is an opportunity to re-evaluate how safe the industry is, what needs to be done and what the challenges are going forward."

Gas industry officials have described the San Bruno accident as an outlier that's not indicative of safety in the industry as a whole.

The board decided not to investigate several additional pipeline accidents — including recent gas explosions in Allentown, Pa., and Philadelphia — because the current workload has strained the agency's manpower, Hersman said. Instead, the board is keeping in touch with state investigators probing the accidents and may including their finding when developing safety recommendations, she said.

Steve Klejst, who heads the NTSB section that investigates pipeline accidents, said he has only four pipeline investigators in his office. He said it has been a decade since the board investigated a pipeline accident as serious as the San Bruno accident. A Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transmission line ruptured underneath a residential neighborhood. The resulting explosion and fire left 55 homes uninhabitable.

"In this accident in San Bruno you had a number of people who were probably, you know, at home sitting around the dinner table or just arriving from their commute and they could never have anticipated what happened on that day," Hersman said. "There are pipelines that run through neighborhoods and communities all over the country. We have an opportunity and obligation to make sure they are as safe as can be."

Other pipeline accidents under investigation include:

• An oil spill from a pipeline owned by a Canadian company sent an estimated 820,000 to 1 million gallons spewing into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., in late July.

• A natural gas pipeline in the Texas Panhandle that exploded last June after it was hit by a bulldozer. Two men were killed.

• A pipeline leak in Romeoville, Ill., last September sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into an industrial park. The pipeline had to shut down, interrupting the flow of oil to Midwest refineries and spiking up regional gas price.

• A natural gas pipeline that ruptured near Palm City, Fla., in May 2009, injuring three people.