San Bruno pipe explosion exposes trend

September 29, 2010 — by Denise Lin

The explosion of the 50-some-year-old pipe in San Bruno on Sept. 9 scorched countless homes, leaving many injured and at least four individuals dead. But as sudden and unexpected as the explosion seemed, it is rare indeed that such a horrific disaster occurs without warning.

Just two miles away from the burst pipe is another pipe that was placed on Pacific Gas & Electric’s list of top 100 risky pipeline segments. Although the identified pipe is not the one that ruptured, the two pipes are located on the same line, according to Time magazine.

A couple years ago, the pipe identified as high risk was originally going to be replaced, but the money allotted for the replacement was instead used for “higher priority work.” A few years later, the company decided that they would strive to replace the pipe by 2013, three years too late to prevent the explosion.

Pipeline inspections, however, are not as scarce as one would expect. In 2002, a new law passed by Congress forced utilities such as PG&E to scrutinize pipelines that traverse densely populated areas. During the first five years of the implementation of this law, thousands of pipeline problems were discovered. In truth, the current predicament lies with the companies’ lack of response, as they are not obligated to rectify these pipeline issues, according to Time.

In addition, the law has become lenient over the years, and currently only requires companies to inspect pipelines every 10 to 15 years.

If anything, the current national pipeline situation indicates that regulations need to be tightened. Pipelines should be thoroughly examined once every decade. Inspections with any higher frequency would be too much of a financial burden for utilities like PG&E. More importantly, PG&E must react promptly and preemptively to risky pipeline situations.

A failure to do so will result in more devastating accidents. Already, about 3,000 pipeline disasters have occurred since 1990, and the risk of disaster is ever increasing. Time said more than 60 percent of the gas transmission lines in the U.S. are at least 40 years old.

Surely, having to replace miles and miles of pipeline will place a financial strain on PG&E, but it is the responsibility the company shouldered from the very beginning. Moreover, the cost of replacing pipeline is preferable to risking the public’s well-being with more gasline explosions as well as the lawsuits that would inevitably follow.

The infrastructure of a nation is its skeleton. Healthy pipes ensure a structurally sound nation, whereas deteriorating pipes put a nation’s foundation at risk. Pushing a pipe to serve beyond its capacity only increases the chances of it succumbing to the immense pressure within and placing more oblivious residents in danger.

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