San Bruno Hearings Raise Doubts on Pipeline Warnings


Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Federal safety officials said Wednesday they were concerned that people who live near pipelines carrying natural gas or hazardous liquids aren’t getting effective warnings about potential hazards.

Questions about the effectiveness of a federal law requiring pipeline operators to publicize such risks came during the second day of hearings on pipeline safety conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board in the wake of September’s fatal explosion of a pipeline in San Bruno, Calif. The rupture of the pipeline owned by PG&E Corp. and the resulting fire killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

San Bruno’s fire chief, Dennis Haag, testified Wednesday that he didn’t know the PG&E pipeline ran under the neighborhood, though it had been there for more than half a century.

Since 2006, federal law has required pipeline operators to alert people living or working near pipelines—as well as emergency officials—about the possible hazards. Those people are supposed to receive information on where pipelines are located, how to prevent damage to them and how to recognize leaks.

PG&E put fliers in with customer bills, sent personnel to appear at “agricultural events” and conducted informational sessions on gas and electric hazards for public officials, according to company documents.

Such efforts didn’t appear to have much impact. Last year, a firm hired by PG&E sent out 15,302 brief questionnaires to people living or working near pipelines—including several hundred in San Bruno, a city of 41,000 people.

Two months later, a total of 20 questionnaires had been returned. Most who responded didn’t know they lived near a pipeline. Only three said they had received pipeline information in the previous two years.

Deborah Hersman, chairman of the NTSB, said she wanted to know if other pipeline operators were any more successful raising awareness. The NTSB may call for higher standards for notification programs, she said. “It’s really important to be sure communities are aware,” she said.

A PG&E official initially defended his company’s program but backed down during questioning by Ms. Hersman. Aaron Rezendez, PG&E senior program manager, said the response rate was “unacceptable…and caused us to step back and say, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ ”

Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who represents the San Bruno area in Congress, said she regarded the public-awareness effort as an “abject failure.”

She has introduced a pipeline-safety bill that would require better notification of people living within 2,000 feet of major pipelines.

Write to Rebecca Smith at

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