A former lead federal investigator has been hired by PG&E to oversee a safety overhaul of its natural gas system, the company announced Tuesday during a congressional subcommittee hearing on pipeline safety.
Former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall is tasked with addressing the safety problems brought to light by a scathing NTSB report issued in the wake of the deadly pipe blast in San Bruno. The announcement comes as PG&E struggles to rehabilitate its image and regain public trust after a year of stinging rebukes from regulators and lawmakers over the Sept. 9, 2010, blast that killed eight people.
At the hearing in Washington, D.C., which was co-chaired by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., PG&E's executive vice president of gas operations, Nick Stavropoulos, said Hall's hiring is an attempt to respond to the criticism leveled in the final NTSB report. Federal investigators slammed PG&E for failing to notice the poorly welded pipe that blew up in San Bruno, pointing to shoddy record-keeping and insufficient risk management as contributing factors.
Hall will also provide reports to the California Public Utilities Commission on how PG&E's efforts are progressing. He was nominated to the NTSB in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and served until 2001. He began his career working for then-Sen. Al Gore and secured various political appointments, including serving in the Cabinet of
"We know we're on the front end of what must be a longer-term effort to modernize our systems and really set new standards for our operational and public safety," Stavropoulos told the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security.
In addition to PG&E, two major natural gas industry groups, the NTSB and federal pipeline regulators weighed in on how to make pipelines safer.
Under questioning from Boxer, all supported eliminating a provision in federal law that exempts pipelines installed before 1970 from rigorous safety tests that use high-pressure water. Line 132, the pipe that blew up in San Bruno, was installed in 1956 and split along a weld defect that could have been found through pressure testing or even spotted with the naked eye, according to NTSB officials.
The issue of so-called grandfathering was taken up by legislation that passed the Senate unanimously Monday. The bill, sponsored by Lautenberg, had languished after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., placed a hold on the legislation. But it shot through the Senate after he dropped his opposition and added a provision that would kill the grandfather clause.
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for a vote.
Boxer said before testimony began that the explosion in San Bruno was an "out-of-control horror that hit a beautiful, middle-class, strong community in our state."
The blast could have been prevented at numerous points if PG&E and regulators had been more vigilant, Boxer said. Preventing such a catastrophe from recurring is the goal of the Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2011, which Boxer authored along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"This litany of failures was not just attributable to PG&E but to serious failures by state and federal regulators," said Boxer, noting that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration gave the PUC, charged with watching over PG&E, an A+ rating before the blast.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335.