Roads wear out. Bridges fail after a number of years. Sewer lines deteriorate.
What makes us think that isn’t the same with natural gas pipelines?
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims Tuesday said the equipment operator was smoothing dirt and not digging near the natural gas line that ruptured last week at her department’s gun range near Highway 99. There were 11 people injured of which six are still hospitalized, including four in critical condition.
This is contrary to what Pacific Gas & Electric as well as the Fresno County Public Works Department believes what happened. They contend the operator of the front loader nicked the pipeline while working on a berm designed to stop bullets at the firing range.
Mims was quoted as saying a front loader isn’t a “digging piece of equipment.” She also said it was simply driving on the road near the berm when the explosion occurred.
Front loaders can dig holes two to four inches at a time. It’s tedious but it can be done. PG&E also said the pipe that supplied a power plant near Chowchilla was buried at least 30 inches below the surface.
It’s safe to say in the aftermath of the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010 that killed eight people that the Fresno explosion is going to get heavy scrutiny.
But here’s the rub. PG&E has a lot of pipeline in place to serve 4.3 million natural gas customers. It includes 42,141 miles of distribution lines and 6,436 miles of transportation pipeline. That’s enough pipeline to go back and forth from San Francisco to New York at least 42 times.
To think you can inspect every square inch of those lines with any degree of certainty to catch a weakness in the pipe is wishful thinking.
PG&E said they had recently inspected the pipeline and found no issues.
If that is the case and the investigation concludes the heavy equipment operator wasn’t digging this should make you very nervous as either a PG&E natural gas customer or a PG&E shareholder.
Some 97 percent of the nation’s 21 million miles of natural gas pipeline are either plastic or steel, according to the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Plastic is the easiest to install, is the most flexible and is the best when it comes to corrosion. That said, it is the weakest in terms of being struck when a third party is digging. It gives way quicker and it is susceptible to static electricity. That said some plastic pipe has been functionally flawless for 60 years.
Everything, though, has a life expectancy. Nothing lasts forever.
There needs to be a standard established by the California Public Utilities Commission and enforced aggressively for replacement of natural gas transportation lines that — should they fail — would cause the most severe damage as indicated by San Bruno and Fresno. Distribution line failures that have happened are significantly less catastrophic for obvious reasons as they have a much lower gas volume.
Oversight is where the problem lies. The CPUC is in the process of preparing more fines for PG&E for natural gas pipeline safety violations after the San Bruno blast that earned the for-profit utility $1.6 billion in penalties.
PG&E hasn’t stepped up its game in terms of pipeline safety or have they?
On one hand they wouldn’t be facing additional fines beyond the ones slapped against them for killing eight people and destroying 32 homes if they had stepped up safety efforts but on the other hand maybe it doesn’t get much better than this.
Death and destruction may be the price we have to pay for aging infrastructure in the form of natural gas pipelines. The consequences aren’t nearly as serious when a sewer or water line fails. It’s a far different story with natural gas pipelines.
It will be comforting if the metallurgic analysis of the failed pipeline in Fresno shows that it was struck by a digging device.
If it failed for other reasons, including pressure exerted by heavy equipment rolling over it from 30 inches above, living, driving or working within a short distance of a transportation line for natural gas would be akin to playing Russian roulette 24/7.
It would mean anywhere in PG&E territory — Manteca, Lathrop, Ripon, et al — could be the next San Bruno or Fresno.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.