US NTSB to pipeline companies: Call 911 in an emergency

It sounds obvious. In an emergency (in most of North America) dial 911.

Only according a US National Transportation Safety Board Report dated June 8 and released today, Pacific Gas and Electric didn’t call 911 in California at the time of a major pipeline breach and fire  on Sept. 9, 2010, in San Bruno, California that caused an explosion that killed eight people, injured many more and caused extensive property damage.
The NTSB report says that while the San Bruno Fire Department was aware of the local natural gas distribution system, the department had no maps and had no briefings on the larger, natural gas transmission pipelines that transversed San Bruno.
The NTSB report says
Because of the differences in operating characteristics, transmission pipelines have different safety risks and concerns for emergency response, including the pipeline company’s  ability to shutdown the pipeline rapidly.  

In a manner similar to the Enbridge situation in Michigan last year (the NTSB report on that incident is still pending), the PG&E data system showed a pressure drop within four minutes of the rupture. 

But it was two off-duty employees who alerted the company’s dispatchers three minutes later to a possible problem.

PG&E dispatched a single technician to the scene who was not authorized to shut off valves. 

In the meantime, public calls to 911 reported the rupture and fire and first responders got to the initial scene in three minutes.

It was not until a technician arrived at the scene and reported in some 16 minutes after the event began that PG&E control room put together the drop in pressure, alarms and dispatcher information and realized that they had a major problem. 

 The NTSB report says in the next paragraph after the incident summary


A pipeline operator’s prompt notification to the local emergency response agencies through a 911 emergency call center can be crucial to the success of the emergency response effort and protection of the public. Even in the case of a smaller, slower leak that does not immediately ignite, when the pipeline operator has immediately notified local emergency response authorities of a potential serious problem, can mobilize needed response resources and area better able to recognize quickly the symptoms of a potential serious gas leak threat


Apparently under current US regulations, there is no requirement for pipeline operators to call 911.

The report goes on to say


The NTSB is concerned that a pipeline operator that does not require control room operators to notify the applicable 911 emergency call center in the event of a possible pipeline rupture can adversely affect the timeliness and effectiveness of emergency response effort. Therefore, the NTSB recommends that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issue guidance to operators of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines and hazardous liquid pipelines regarding the importance of control room operators immediately and directly notifying the 911 emergency call center(s) for the communities and jurisdictions which those pipelines are located when a possible rupture of any pipeline is indicated.

Read the NTSB report on 911 response to the PG&E San Bruno pipeline disaster.

Editors’s Note:

It is clear that this brief NTSB report  (it is still investigating the actual cause of the rupture and explosion) confirms the fears of residents of northwestern British Columbia about pipeline ruptures in the wilderness, whether those pipelines carry bitumen or natural gas, are harder to detect and fix than problems in populated areas like California.
Also residents of northwestern BC are entitled to get more information from the National Energy Board, the BC Utilities Commission and the companies that are proposing large scale transmission of natural gas through this region about the special hazards related to transmission pipelines mentioned in the NTSB report.
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