On September 9th 2010 at 6:11pm, a 30-inch (76 cm) diameter natural gas pipeline exploded within the city of San Bruno California killing eight people and injuring 58. The enormous fires produced from the rapidly escaping gas completely incinerated 35 homes, dozens of parked vehicles, and scorched over 10 acres of private and public property. 70 additional homes were also damaged with three becoming uninhabitable.
The raging eight alarm inferno required a crew of approximately 200 firefighters battling high winds and other obstacles to bring the flames under control. Eye witnesses to the disaster claimed the initial explosion produced a wall of flame almost 1000 feet high. Within hours after the explosion, overwhelmed fire crews desperately reached out to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to request an additional 25 engines to pump water along with four air tankers, two air attack planes, and one helicopter to dump fire retardant from the air.
By 10pm local time, the fires were only 50 percent contained and continued to burn until approximately 11:40am the next day. After the last ember was finally extinguished, the once charming middle class neighborhood was now reduced to a war zone.
After a thorough investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), it was discovered that the welds on the 28 foot (8.5 m) section of ruptured pipe were both antiquated and defective and eventually failed from years of gas pressure variances and stress. The NTSB investigation also revealed that the pipe was installed in the ground in 1956 and contained no documentation or maintenance records. The pipe section was part of a gas pipeline network known as Line 132 and was installed, maintained, and owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Additional findings included PG&E’s lack of response after San Bruno residents reported smelling natural gas hours before the explosion and the time it took PG&E to shut off the gas supply to San Bruno after the explosion (95 minutes).
When the pipe blew open, it ruptured along a top lateral weld sending gas straight up. As gas was released, it instantly ignited and produced a wall of flame hundreds of feet into the air. In addition to the main line explosion, flaming gases traveled through a network of service lines feeding off the main line setting individual houses ablaze. The crater left from the explosion measured 167 feet (51 m) long by 26 feet (7.9 m) wide.
In August of 2013, I left a full-time technical writing position at a semiconductor company to join a small consulting firm (who shall remain nameless) working for PG&E on improving employee training programs for its Gas Operations division. The relationship between my firm and PG&E was primarily born out of the San Bruno disaster and PG&E’s overall training and documentation shortcomings.
One of the main reasons I joined this firm was a desire to make a difference in how PG&E trained their Gas Ops technicians. As I dove into my assignments, I found the work to be meaningful and necessary and firmly believed the programs our team were working on would hopefully prevent another San Bruno from ever happening again.
In November of 2013, our team was informed that PG&E’s training budget would be significantly reduced thus making headcount reductions necessary. On January 3rd 2014, my firm fired approximately 50 percent of its staff including me. The months that followed brought additional cuts to staff leaving just a handful of people to work on dwindling PG&E training programs.
On April 9th 2015, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) overwhelmingly voted to slap PG&E with a 1.6 billion dollar penalty for its negligence, incompetence, and culpability in the San Bruno disaster. In addition to the PUC ruling, PG&E still faces an enormous litany of litigation and criminal charges from the destruction of personal property and loss of life.
To this day, the PUC fine marks the largest financial penalty ever brought against a public utility in the United States.
In my opinion, PG&E should pay every dime of this fine as punishment for its misguided priorities and negligence. Public utilities hold some of the highest risk of any company on the planet due to their responsibility to public safety and as such should be held to the highest levels of public and government accountability imaginable. In short, there can be no financial compromises on safety or training programs. I cannot imagine the jobs at my previous consulting firm that could now be restored or additional hiring that could result from 1.6 billion dollars.
Make no mistake, a majority of the infrastructure beneath us is several decades old and is in dire need of inspection, replacement, and repair. Until PG&E seriously begins refocusing on its training and documentation priorities, the haunting possibility of another San Bruno or worst will always be lurking below us.