Daylife/AP Photo used by permission
People who were rattled by the Sept. 9 San Bruno disaster and want to find out if there are potentially explosive pipelines under their neighborhoods have a tough task of sleuthing ahead of them. Most of the information is out there, if they hunt and push hard enough – but that information reveals only so much.
Databases, maps and help lines are available through national and state agencies as well as Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the main supplier of natural gas in Northern California. But there are too many kinds of gas lines from too many companies, and too many security concerns, for any one person to get locations easily, experts and public officials say.
“Everyone is asking where these pipelines are, and the answers aren’t easy to get,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer organization. “Customers can’t wait years or months for that information. We need a better system…”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, California has 122,217 miles of liquid and petroleum pipelines crisscrossing its towns, fields and mountains. To find out where these are, the central source of information is the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration’s national map of major pipelines. The map gives a general idea of where the lines are, but it doesn’t show detail street by street…
In the Bay Area, the most recent high-profile accident involving gas pipelines was in 2004, when a backhoe operator punctured a high-pressure gasoline pipeline in Walnut Creek owned by Kinder Morgan. The explosion killed five construction workers.
We haven’t an accident of this size in a few years in New Mexico. We’ve only just avoided a couple, though, including a gas leak recently reported in the heart of Albuquerque associated with roadwork – that went unrepaired for a few weeks.
Robots that crawl through pipelines have been available – and rarely used – for several years. PG&E is deploying them 24/7 since the San Bruno explosion. But, more often they’re limited to scheduled maintenance trips based on budget as much as anything else. Or when they produce a profit – like drawing cable TV and broadband lines through existing pipelines.
None of which engenders a lot of confidence.