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It's Official: Feds Blame PG&E For San Bruno Disaster (Liveblog)

A law enforcement official runs towards a massive fire in a residential neighborhood Sept. 9, 2010 in San Bruno
//yeti-cir-test.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/9/san-bruno-fire-getty/original/103953034.jpg
A law enforcement official runs towards a massive fire in a residential neighborhood Sept. 9, 2010 in San Bruno
 

A law enforcement official runs towards a massive fire in a residential neighborhood Sept. 9, 2010 in San Bruno
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
https://citizen-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/9/san-bruno-fire-getty/original/103953034.jpg?Signature=X%2FgSFQWm28K4LCKqKGFwkrh30zM%3D&Expires=1359073278&AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAICY2ZBGLHCXTSKJA
A law enforcement official runs towards a massive fire in a residential neighborhood Sept. 9, 2010 in San Bruno
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

The National Transportation Safety Board met today in Washington, DC, and determined that six decades of deficient PG&E pipeline management practices, its poor-quality pipeline and poorly planned electrical work were the "probable causes" of the San Bruno pipeline explosion. The California Public Utilities Commission and federal regulators also received some blame. San Bruno was cleared of blame, despite claims by PG&E that a sewer project in 2008 damaged the affected pipeline.

2:12 p.m. The NTSB's synopsis of today's findings can be read or downloaded here. It lists 28 findings, 29 new safety recommendations and the official statement about the probable cause of the accident.

2:10 p.m. The California Public Utilties Commission will release the results of its own investigation into the tragedy in December, according to a statement released this afternoon. That investigation could lead to "significant fines and other sanctions," the statement says. “The tragedy in San Bruno forever changed the way California and the nation view pipeline safety," Executive Director Paul Clanon said in the statement.

1:42 p.m. PG&E President Chris Johns released a statement in response to today's findings, welcoming the NTSB's work and outlining a list of measures taken since the San Bruno disaster to improve pipeline safety. "We at PG&E will take to heart the NTSB’s findings from its thorough and independent investigation into the tragic San Bruno accident nearly a year ago," Johns said in the statement. "Because we firmly share the Board’s commitment to seeing that such a terrible accident never happens again, we are grateful for its meticulous review of evidence, finding of facts and thoughtful recommendations."

12:21 p.m. NTSB chair Deborah Hersman's strong closing remarks were provided to reporters in a .pdf document. The document is posted here.

12:14 p.m. NTSB chair Hersman in closing remarks: "Ronald Reagan famously said, 'Trust, but verify.' For government to do its job - safeguard the public - it cannot trust alone. It must verify through effective oversight. And as we saw in San Bruno, when the approach to safety is lax, the consequences can be deadly. ... Where trust is not merited, make sure the penalty is high. Because, when there's an accident like the one in San Bruno, it is too late."

12:14 p.m. NTSB chair Hersman ended with some strong words about PG&E and its regulators.

12:11 p.m. Within 30 minutes, reporters are expecting to receive a synopsis of the draft accident report that was provided by NTSB staff to commissioners. I will post it here as soon as it is available. Within several weeks, the NTSB plans to finalize and publish the report based on feedback from board members.

12:10 p.m. The hearing is wrapping up and NTSB chair Deborah Hersman is praising staff.

12:08 p.m. NTSB board members just agreed to take San Bruno off the name of the report (which still has not been published) and to replace with with PG&E. NTSB board member Suwalt said San Bruno "and her residents" were the victims of the accident - not the cause. (This is despite efforts by the natural gas industry and PG&E to blame a San Bruno sewer project undertaken near the affected pipeline in 2008 as a cause of the disaster.)

12:04 p.m. NTSB board members are debating safety recommendations stemming from its findings, which were made by unanimous votes a short time ago, about the probable causes of the San Bruno disaster. Much of the debate is focused on inspection tools and technology.

11:58 a.m. A reminder: Lawyers representing the hundreds of people who are suing PG&E over the San Bruno disaster can not use today's NTSB rulings in court. But the evidence that the NTSB gathered and relied upon in reaching these rulings and conclusions is admissable. More details are containeed in this story, which ran last night: Judgment Day Looms for PG&E.

11:53 a.m. To recap, the five members of the National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously that PG&E's deficient pipeline management system - from the 1950s until the present time - was the "probable cause" of the Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster, which killed eight people. Deficient oversight by state and federal regulators were "contributing causes," the board ruled. PG&E's response to the disaster and its lack of emergency preparedness increased the severity of the accident, the board ruled. (Update 3:35 p.m. The quality of PG&E's pipeline and poorly planned electrical work that led to a power outage leading to a pressure spike were also ruled probable causes - these were both stated as consequences of PG&E's safety management systems.)

11:52 a.m. NTSB board members currently debating and considering a long list of safety recommendations proposed by staff. I didn't jot them down because I was typing out the other findings for this blog - I will paste a list of the adopted recommendations when it is available. Most of the recommendations stem from the findings outlined below.

11:38 a.m. Other findings adopted unanimously by Board: San Bruno's 2008 sewer project did not contribute to the accident; The pipeline didn't meet 1950s standards; The pipeline fracture began along an deficient weld; PG&E lacked a comprehensive plan for responding to such a disaster; The 95 minutes that PG&E took to shut off the flow of gas to the rupture was exceessive; Local emergency workers and agencies coordinated their response to the disaster well; PG&E's post-accident drug and alcohol testing program was inadequate; There is no basis to exempt old pipelines from modern inspection rules; PG&E's gas transmission integrity program was deficient and ineffective; And the disaster was the result of an "organizational accident" - ie, there was no single cause of the accident, instead it was the culmination of systemic failures within PG&E.

11:38 a.m. Factor that increased severity of the accident, as adopted by board: PG&E's flawed emergency response and its failure to install valves along the affected line that could have been used to automatially or remotely shut off the flow of gas to the rupture.

11:38 a.m. Contributing cause of the accident adopted by board: The California Public Utilities Commission's failure to detect inadequacies in PG&E's pipeline management programs.

11:38 a.m. Contributing cause of the accident adopted by board: The California Public Utilities Commission's and U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's decisions to exempt old pipelines from modern inspection requirements.

11:38 a.m. Probable cause of accident, as adopted by Board: PG&E's inadequate quality controls in 1956, when the deficient pipe was laid, and its ongoing management system, which failed to identify weaknesses in the pipe over time.

11:36 a.m. Board just unanimously adopted probable causes recommended by staff.

11:28 a.m. Board members will now rule on the causes of the accident.

11:16 a.m. Another recess, this time for ten minutes.

11:12 a.m. NTSB chair Hersman had very strong words condemning federal regulators for failing to protect the public. The way she chose her words suggested that she was not just referring to pipeline regulators.

11:11 a.m. NTSB chair Hersman: PG&E once proposed redesigning the San Bruno pipeline to allow thorough and internal inspections to the California Public Utilities Commission, but it never followed through with the plan.

11:03 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: Can't say how long it will take for all of the old pipelines in the state to be inspected under the new guidelines, but it will certainly take "years."

11:02 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: New California utility rules, introduced after the San Bruno accident, subject older pipelines to modern inspection requirements. "Those pipelines which were not tested at construction now have to undergo a hydrostatic test to show that they’re safe," Hall said.

10:59 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt agrees with Hersman's statement that it is wrong to exempt old pipelines from modern inspection requirements. Such pipes are at greatest risk of failure, he said. "It's backwards," he said. "There's something fundamentally wrong."

10:57 a.m. NTSB chair Deborah Hersman: California Public Utilities Commission allowed PG&E to test its own operators for drugs and alcohol after the San Bruno accident, but PG&E failed to do so for all of its operators.

10:55 a.m. NTSB chair Deborah Hersman condemned rules that effectively exempt old pipelines from modern inspection rules. "Our oldest pipelines really are without a safety net."

10:55 a.m. NTSB vice chair Christopher Hart said the San Bruno accident should be a wake-up call - and not just for pipeline safety. Federal regulators are no longer performing rigorous inspections because they are losing funding, he said. "This event reflects a troubling trend to me," Hart said, comparing the lack of federal oversight of pipeline safety with federal aviation regulatory failures.

10:47 a.m. NTSB member Rosekind reminds us that a gas association representative said during an NTSB hearing earlier this year that the PG&E accident was an "anomaly." But based on the definition of the word, and given the number of PG&E's pipeline accidents in recent years, Rosekind says that claim "no longer holds." (The accident occurred amid a rash of pipeline accidents. NTSB is currently investigating five pipeline accidents and had to refer another 10 accidents back to other authoritie for investiations due to lack of resources.)

10:45 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: Defects in pipeline were "large" and would have been easily identified using modern, internal inspection techniques.

10:40 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall in response to questions from NTSB member Robert Sumwalt: Just 65 feet out of 47 miles of the San Bruno pipeline had been inspected. Performed by excavating dirt around the pipeline and performing inspections. Sumwalt described that as insufficient.

10:37 a.m. NTSB investigator Trainor: The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which oversees the CPUC and other state utility agencies, has authority to enforce better pipeline standards.

10:37 a.m. NTSB investigator Trainor: CPUC's structure resembles those of utilities agencies in other states, raising fears amont NTSB investigators that pipeline operators across the country are able to ignore safety rules without fearing fines or other enforcement actions.

10:36 a.m. NTSB investigator Trainor: "CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) failed to uncover the pervasive and longstanding problems within PG&E." The federal government, meanwhile, rated CPUC's oversight of PG&E highly.

10:33 a.m. NTSB investigator Trainor: Federal rule changes that took effect in 2004 made it more difficult for federal and state regulators to oversee pipeline safety operators' safety programs.

10:29 a.m. NTSB investigator Robert Trainor is now briefing board members on the role of state and federal regulators in pipeline safety -- and in the San Bruno accident.

10:28 p.m. NTSB investigator Hall: PG&E's pipeline safety program did not consider the dangers of known welding defects. (The San Bruno pipeline ruptured at a poorly welded seam.)

10:26 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: More than half of the nation's gas transmission pipelines cannot accommodate internal inspection tools needed to test for weaknesses, such as those present in the San Bruno pipeline. Modern pipes can acommodate such inspection devices.

10:25 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: Standard internal testing techniques would have revealed that the San Bruno pipeline was at risk of explosion, but no such tests were undertaken. Such tests were not possible in the pipeline because of the way the pipe was built (it contained sharp turns.)

10:23 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: PG&E's risk management programs understated the risks of damage caused by corrosion and overstated the risks of damage from construction work and ground movement, such as earthquakes.

10:21 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall:"PG&E's pipeline records in many cases used assumed values for key pipeline paramaters”, such as the thickness of the pipe walls and the depth of ground covering them. "The records also contain many obvious errors."

10:19 a.m. NTSB investigator Hall: Pipelines built before 1961, such as the San Bruno pipeline, are exmpted by California regulations from post-1961 pressure testing requirements. That resulted in missed opportunities to detect flaws in the San Bruno pipeline before it exploded.

10:18 a.m. Hearing has resumed. NTSB investigator Robert Hall will now make a presentation on PG&E's "pipeline integrity issues," including inspection practices.

9:27 a.m. The hearing is adjourned for lunch. When it resumes at 10:15 a.m., the California Public Utilities Commission and the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will join PG&E in the hot seat. Regulations established and enforced by both of those agencies came under brief criticism earlier today, and NTSB chair Hersman indicated to reporters during a brief press conference held a few minutes ago that these regulators share some blame. "You cannot place blind trust in an operator (PG&E) that doesn't deserve that trust," Hersman said.

9:24 a.m. NTSB chair Deborah Hersman had more harsh words for PG&E during a brief press conference. She repeatedly said her agency has been "frustrated" with the company's inability to provide information and documents needed for the investigation. Asked by SF Examiner reporter Katie Worth whether she thinks that PG&E has been deliberately withholding information, Hersman replied that she doesn't know - but that she does know that it has been unhelpful.

9:10 a.m. NTSB chair Deborah Hersman will hold a press conference in 5 minutes. I'll pop next door and report back if she says anything new.

9:09 a.m. The tone among NTSB investigators and members during today's hearing has been one of utter condemntation of PG&E. No other parties have been singled out for blame in the San Bruno accident. The tone was set yesterday during a press conference by NTSB chair Deborah Hersman. Here is a short video of her addressing reporters about flaws in the pipeline and in PG&E's management of the pipe. (This is the same video that I posted at 6:20 a.m.) (Update 9:23 a.m. - there were, in fact, a few critical remarks made this morning about government oversight of PG&E and this will be discussed in greater detail later today.)

NTSB Chairwoman with Ruptured San Bruno Pipeline

9:07 a.m. After concluding that it is clear that there was "no leadership" within PG&E in its emergency response to the San Bruno disaster, NTSB chair Deborah Hersman adjourned the hearing for lunch. Hearings will resume with additional presentations from NTSB investigators at 10:15 a.m. PDT (1:15 p.m. EDT).

9:05 a.m. Sen. Leeland Yee (D-San Francisco), a candidate for mayor of San Francisco and a famously proflic sender of press releases, was the first politician to hit my inbox with a statement seizing on this morning's hearing. "It is now crystal clear who is at fault in destroying the Glenview neighborhood and tragically killing eight members of our community," Yee said in the press release. "PG&E’s failures were systemic, dating back decades. They not only could have and should have prevented this catastrophe, but they had several opportunities to do so. This is nothing short of gross negligence."

9:05 a.m. NTSB chair Hersman drew parallels between PG&E's SmartMeters, which provide real time information to PG&E about electricity and gas use in a home, and the company's inability to monitor its own transmission pipelines.

9:04 a.m. Based on statements made by NTSB investigators today, it would appear that San Bruno is off the hook for blame in this disaster. PG&E and the Natural Gas Association both claim that a 2008 San Bruno-funded sewer project performed by contractors weakened the gas pipeline and contributed to the accident. NTSB today emphatically refutes that claim. A court could, of course, reach a different conclusoin - but much of the evidence in any court cases will come from this investigation. An official vote by NTSB members on the causes of the disaster will come later today, but it certainly does not appear likely that they will judge the sewer replacement project as a probable cause of the accident.

8:57 a.m. NTSB chair Hersman bringing the discussion back to the immediate lead-up to the accident. The accident occurred after pressure spiked due to a loss of power at a PG&E operations terminal. The power was lost during work that was designed to improve power supply reliability. "I found it ironic that the role of the project was to do work on the uninterruptable power source, and in the course of doing that they actually interrupted the power and created this situation,” Hersman said.

8:50 a.m. NTSB member Rosekind is again asking whether the 2008 San Bruno sewer replacement project could have contributed to the Sept. 9, 2011 pipeline explosion. This is clearly an important issue, with the Natural Gas Assocation and PG&E both accusing the contractors of weakening the natural gas pipeline and contributing to the accident. This issue will play out in courtrooms. NTSB investigator Kramer's response: "It didn’t play any role in it whatsoever. We've looked at this sewer replacement project in great detail and we cannot make it work -- we cannot find a scenario in which it would have damaged the pipe."

8:49 a.m. Understatement of the day, from NTSB investigator Kramer, discussing the deficient short sections of pipe that exploded beneath San Bruno: "I don’t know that you would really want to have any of those pups in your pipeline, quite frankly."

8:46 a.m. NTSB investigator Kramer: "We evaluated many attributes of each pup (short section of pipe - six were present at the explosion site) and the pieces of pipe north and south of the pups, and in just about every way we chose to evaluate them, the pups, one through five in particular, deviated from the properties you would expect."

8:41 a.m. NTSB member Weener wants to know how PG&E could search its system of gas pipelines for welding deficiencies similar to those present in the exploded San Bruno pipeline. NTSB investigator Chhatre said two types of inspection techniques are available that would reveal such weaknesses.

8:38 a.m. NTSB investigator Ravi Chhatre told NTSB member Sumwalt that the agency interviewed a worker whose job was to crawl through the pipeline in 1956 after it was laid. The deficient welding on the pipeline's internal seams are visible to the naked eye. But that worker was not qualified to inspect the pipe for weaknesses. "His job was to pick up debris," Chhatre said. "He was crawling about in the dark. He couldn't see any seam welds."

8:36 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt asked whether PG&E laid the pipelne in 1956, or whether contractors performed the work. NTSB staff responded by saying that PG&E did the work.

8:34 a.m. NTSB staff: We obtained video of the 2008 sewer-bursting project and performed extensive site surveys and interviews, which demonstrated to us that the project did not put significant force on PG&E's pipeline. The Natural Gas Assocation's claim that the sewer project contributed to the disaster by weakening the pipe was based on the assumption that forces or vibrations were applied to the pipeline. "We determined that (pressure on the pipeline from the sewer project) were equivalent to internal pressure changes of about 2 PSI to 6 PSI of internal gas pressure. By comparison, the pressure on line 132 can vary as much as 110 PSI."

8:30 a.m. NTSB chair Hersman points out that Natural Gas Assocation-led study blamed a San Bruno sewer project as a contributing cause of the accident. (From memory, this conclusion was included in a report prepared for the CPUC, and the conclusion was made despite direction from CPUC that the group should not draw conclusions about the causes of the accident.)

8:28 a.m. NTSB investigator Kramer: The pipeline was laid in the 1950s, but it wasn't until 1961 that state regulators reequired pipelines' maximum allowable operating pressures to be kept on file.

8:26 a.m. NTSB investigator Kramer: In the 1950s, when the ruptured pipeline was laid, regulations were in place that governed pipeline operating safety. Those regulations formed the basis of modern safety regulations.

8:24 a.m. NTSB chair Deborah Hersman is asking investigators questions about the 1950s origins of the ruptured pipeline. Inestgator Chhatre: We couldn't find any records that would help me definitely answer your questions.

8:22 a.m. Holy moly. NTSB investigator Nicholson: "I haven’t seen any documentation to date that suggests (PG&E) have updated their gas emergency plan." Let's see what PG&E has to say about that - I will email their spokesman and post a response if it comes through.

8:15 a.m. NTSB investigator Chhatre said it was normal practice to use pups to help navigate a pipeline around a curve, but normally fewer pups would have been used. (NTSB investigator Kramer: Six pups were present at the accident location - three of which were missing weld on the interior of the pipeline.)

8:14 a.m. NTSB vice chair Christopher Hart, the board member who responded to the accident, is asking agency staff about the pups (short lengths of pipeline where the explosion began.) Some have speculated that the pups were used to help drape the pipeline over a slight curve.

8:13 a.m. NTSB investigator Bob Trainor on PG&E's response to the San Bruno explosion: "There was no one single source that was receiving all the information," Trainor said. "There was no central, single source within the company that we could see that was taking this information and assessing it and making decisions and taking action." Trainor faults the company for its "poorly put together" response to the disaster, but says the NTSB doesn't have recommendations for who within PG&E should take control during future disasters - that is a decision for PG&E.

8:08 a.m. NTSB investigator Nicholson criticizing PG&E for its assumption, outlined in a now-controversial memo prior to the explosion, that most of the damage caused by a pipeline explosion occurs within 30 seconds of a blast. That memo formed the basis of the company's decision to not install manual or automated gas shut-off valves, which could have been used by PG&E to quickly put out the San Bruno fire. "Regulations require more research" than went into that memo, Nicholson said.

8:06 a.m. NTSB investigator Nicholson says a PG&E operator should have taken the lead in coordinating a response to the disaster. This did not happen, causing confusion and worsening the emergency response. Improved technology and coordination would have doused the fire within 15 to 20 minutes - instead of 90 minutes. "It was a very slow moving process," Nicholson said.

8:04 a.m. NTSB investigator Nicholson says PG&E could have incorporated improved technology into its pipeline network, which could have provided better information about pipeline explosions and helped automatically shut of the flow of gas to the fire.

8:03 a.m. NTSB investigator Matthew Nicholson says PG&E should have run emergency drills and invited local emergency responders to participate in those drills. Such drills would have improved the response to the explosion and fire, he says.

8:02 a.m. NTSB member Mark Rosekind wants to know what PG&E could have done differently to improve its emergency response.

8:02 a.m. NTSB investigator Donald Kramer says contractors who replaced a sewer line beneath the affected pipeline in 2008 carefully excavated around the gas pipeline, and its pipe-bursting tools (which are used to replace sewers in some circumstances and can damage nearby infrastrcuture) were not used under the pipeline. The amount of pressure exerted by the contractors on the pipeline were "10 to 15 times less than the daily pressure variations" in the pipe.

7:58 a.m. NTSB member Weener wants to know why staff ruled out the possibility that a San Bruno sewer replacement project beneath the pipeline in June 2008 as a cause of the disaster. (PG&E has blamed this project for the accident.)

7:56 a.m. NTSB member Earl Weener is asking staff about the origins of the short, deficient sections of pipe where the rupture originated. It seems we will never know exactly where they came from, but NTSB investigator Donald Kramer outlined unusual characteristics about them: "If you wanted to use a short piece of pipe, or a pup, typically you would take a longer piece of pipe and cut off the length you need. In this case, we know from our metallurgical evaluation that at least four of these pups never originated form a long section of pipe. They were originally fabricated as, probably, approximately 4-foot long sections of pipe."

7:52 a.m. NTSB member Earl Weener asked staff how much pressure should have been withstood by a properly inspected and constructed 30-inch natural gas transmission line that was manufactured in the 1950s. Answer: 1,300 PSI (pounds per square inch.) The pipe ruptured at 386 PSI.

7:49 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt reads from a draft report (not available to the public) that lists cultural problems within PG&E that contributed to the accident, such as low morale, many of which have manifested since the company was plunged into bankruptcy a decade ago. Then he pointes out that the pipeline was put in the ground in 1956, so "I'm still baffled" about how these problems could have persisted for more than 50 years.

7:48 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt asked NTSB staff: “How does an organization get to the point where they have all of these deficiencies?" Answer: A lack of an "effective internal program for assessing and identifying risks" within PG&E.

7:47 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt: Drug and alcohol testing protocols were not followed after the San Bruno pipeline accident.

7:44 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt again discussing previous PG&E pipeline accidents. The company's failure to learn from previous accidents, including the 2008 explosion in Rancho Cordova, which killed one person, has been a major element of the NTSB's investigation.

7:42 a.m. NTSB member Sumwalt on the system failure that led to the accident. "The individuals working in the system, I think, by and large were dedicated people trying to do the right things but they were working in a flawed system."

7:41 a.m. NTSB member Robert Sumwalt: This accident was not just the result of a failure of a pipeline - it was the result of a system failure. Blames PG&E and regulators.

7:40 a.m. Hearing has resumed.

7:34 a.m. There is a lot of press here. The press room is full of reporters, perhaps 10 or 12 (hard to tell because some have left the room during the break), and this is a picture of television cameras trained on the hearing:

7:25 a.m. When the hearing resumes in 15 minutes, NTSB board members will discuss the accident with the agency's investigators.

7:23 a.m. A reminder that this hearing is also being webcast - www.capitolconnection.net/capcon/ntsb/ntsb.htm

7:22 a.m. Recess of 20 minutes called.

7:21 a.m. NTSB staff: If PG&E had installed automatic or manual pipeline valves, the fire could have been doused one hour earlier than was the case. (PG&E has proposed installing 228 such valves and has asked California utility regulators to pass on 90 percent of the costs to customers.)

7:20 a.m. NTSB staff: PG&E's botched response to the pipeline explosion and fire worsened the damage that was caused.

7:17 a.m. NTSB staff: Communications problems were rife as the fire raged because PG&E lacked a command center, "defined leadership" or a point person to coordinate the emergency response. PG&E did not alert emergency authorities, even after they learned of the disaster.

7:16 a.m. NTSB staff: There were no guidelines and "no clear process" for PG&E's nearest operations center to respond to the distaster.

7:15 a.m. NTSB staff: PG&E dispatched a gas operator at 6:23 p.m., which was five minutes after receiving a phone call alerting the company to the explosion, but that operator was not qualified to shut off the flow of gas. It was not until 7:30 p.m. that a valve was closed, shutting off the flow of gas and starving the fire of its fuel.

7:13 a.m. NTSB staff member Matthew Nicholson is now discussing PG&E's response to the disaster.

7:12 a.m. NTSB staff: The deficient welds on the pipeline could have been identified with the naked eye, suggesting it was never inspected.

7:12 a.m. Big news - NTSB investigated whether a San Bruno sewer replacement project near the rupture site contributed to the disaster, as PG&E and other industry members have speculated. "Ultimately, that possibility was excluded," NTSB staff member Donald Kramer said.

7:08 a.m. NTSB staff: Gas pressure peeled open the pipeline at poorly-welded points, and the rupture spread along other deficient welds. Rupture originated at a deficient longtitudinal seam (which runs along the spine of a pipe.)

7:07 a.m. NTSB staff: The pipeline that exploded would not have withstood standard pressure tests that PG&E's pipeline supplier performed as standard during the 1950s in its workshops.

7:06 a.m. The opening remarks by NTSB staff member Ravi Chhatre, the investigator-in-charge for the San Bruno disaster, can be read or downloaded here: www.baycitizen.org/documents/ntsb-san-bruno-investigator-charge-aug/

7:03 a.m. NTSB staff: In the 1950s, when the San Bruno pipeline was laid, the pipe that PG&E normally purchased was created using a flat piece of metal folded into a cylinder and welded on the inside and outside using a process known as double submerged arc welding. But the pipe that exploded "did not conform to any known specification" and was welded from the outside only.

7:01 a.m. NTSB staff: Pipeline is normall constructed using 20-foot to 40-foot lengths of pipe. But the pipeline exploded at a defectively welded seam in a "pup," which was one of six unusually short lengths of pipe that had been welded between two longer pipelines.

7:00 a.m. NTSB staff member Donald Kramer is discussing the construction of the exploded pipe and the nature of its explosion.

6:58 a.m. NTSB staff: Before explosion, due to power outage, PG&E operators were unable to receive accurate information about pressure in nearby pipelines, including the pipe that exploded. About 40 minutes before the blast, an operator learned that pressure alarms were sounding, but they couldn't do their job properly because the operations center was ill-equipped to handle the power outage.

6:52 a.m. NTSB staff recapping events that led up to the tragedy. 50 minutes before explosion, a power outage at a PG&E operations center resulted in a loss of primary pressure control along the San Francisco Peninsula. That caused pressure in the affected pipeline to increase. Some displays in the operations center went blank.

6:50 a.m. NTSB staff: During this investigation, 10 safety recommendations have already been issued - three for the federal government, three for the California Public Utilities Commission and four for PG&E.

6:47 a.m. NTSB staff: We identified "systemic deficiencies within PG&E as an organization," which missed opportunities to learn from mistakes and prevent the San Bruno accident. The accident was the result of "ineffective federal and state oversight" and "inadequate federal safety rules."

6:45 a.m. NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman's opening statement was emailed to reporters. I have posted the .pdf document to view or download here: www.baycitizen.org/documents/ntsb-chairwomans-aug-30-opening/

6:42 a.m. NTSB staff: Pipeline was blown 100 feet from a 72-foot by 26-foot crater.

6:41 a.m. Hearing is being broadcast: www.capitolconnection.net/capcon/ntsb/ntsb.htm

6:41 a.m. NTSB staff recapping the Sept. 9, 2010 pipeline disaster. Dozens of homes destroyed, eight people lost their lives.

6:39 a.m. Very strong words from NTSB Chair Hersman about PG&E's terrible history of pipeline accidents, and its failure to learn from them. "It was not a question of if this pipeline would burst, it was a question of when.”

6:38 a.m. NTSB Chair Hersman: Government agencies placed "blind trust" in PG&E. "Today you are going to hear revelations" about a company that "exploited weaknesses" in government oversight. "Good intentions did not prevent this accident from happening. Opportunities were missed that could have and should have prevented this tragedy."

6:35 a.m. NTSB Chair Hersman: There are 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the United States, including 300,000 miles of gas transmission lines. "It is incumbent upon pipeline operators and regulators to ensure that the nation's pipelines are safe."

6:33 a.m. NTSB Chair Hersman on her recent visit to San Bruno. "We saw a community that still mourns its many losses," she said. "As we saw the first concrete being poured for a rebuilt home, we also saw the resilience of the people of San Bruno to rebuild not just their homes but their lives."

6:32 a.m. NTSB Chair Hersman welcomes Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), a "tireless advocate" for pipeline safety, and San Bruno's mayor, city manager and council members.

6:31 a.m. NTSB Chair Hersman extends condolences to victims of the San Bruno blast.

6:30 a.m. NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman just banged a gavel and is opening the hearing.

6:26 a.m. Conference room is quickly filling up, mostly with men in gray suits, and the NTSB board members are taking their seats. PG&E handed out a statement to reporters that praises the work of the safety board and emphasizes that it has taken a number of steps to improve pipeline safety since last year.

6:20 a.m. The tone of today's hearing was set during a press conference yesterday by NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman, who indicated strong frustrations with Pacific Gas & Electric for the poor quality of its pipeline and the company's inability to explain where or how the affected section of pipeline was manufactured. I put together a quick video of some of her remarks:

NTSB Chairwoman with Ruptured San Bruno Pipeline

6:15 a.m. The NTSB's conference room is gradually filling up. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m. PDT, which is 9:30 a.m. EDT.

Full coverage of the San Bruno explosion and its aftermath here.

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