A three-day hearing held last week in Washington, D.C., focused on a tragedy in a suburb of San Francisco. But its topic should be of concern to anyone who lives near one of the millions of miles of gas and oil pipelines that snake throughout the country, including the South Sound.
The National Transportation Safety Board is seeking answers as to why a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas pipeline exploded last September in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people, injuring many more and destroying dozens of homes.
The underlying concern is that the same factors that may have contributed to this deadly accident – old pipes, lax maintenance and testing, poor record-keeping and lack of automatic shutoff valves – could lead to similar tragedies in other communities.
In fact, an unnerving number of pipeline accidents have occurred in recent months, including the Feb. 9 natural-gas explosion that killed give people in Allentown, Pa. In the Northwest, we painfully remember the June 1999 accident that killed two 10-year-old boys and a young man in Bellingham.
Industry officials say the San Bruno accident was a freak occurrence that doesn’t reflect safety levels in the nation. But some of the problems that might have caused it are present in other communities – in particular aging infrastructure, lack of automatic shutoff valves to minimize damage and lack of oversight. NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman lamented the fact that the agency has only four full-time pipeline investigators.
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