2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion
Remains of a portion of the natural gas pipeline after the explosion.
|Date||Thursday, September 9, 2010|
|Location||San Bruno, California
The 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion occurred at 6:11 pm PDT on September 9, 2010, in San Bruno, California, a suburb of San Francisco, when a 30-inch (76 cm) diameter steel natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric exploded in flames in the Crestmoor residential neighborhood 2 mi (3.2 km) west of San Francisco International Airport near Skyline Boulevard and San Bruno Avenue. The loud roar and shaking led some residents of the area, first responders, and news media to initially believe that it was an earthquake or that a large jetliner had crashed. It took crews nearly an hour to determine it was a gas pipeline explosion. As of September 29, 2010, the death toll was eight people. The United States Geological Survey registered the explosion and resulting shock wave as a magnitude 1.1 earthquake. Eyewitnesses reported the initial blast "had a wall of fire more than 1,000 feet high".
Explosion and fire
At 6:11:12 pm PDT on September 9, 2010, a huge explosion occurred in the Crestmoor residential neighborhood of San Bruno, near Skyline Boulevard and San Bruno Avenue. This caused a fire, which quickly engulfed nearby houses. Emergency responders of San Bruno and nearby cities soon arrived at the scene and evacuated surrounding neighborhoods. Strong winds fanned the flames, hampering extinguishment efforts. The blaze was fed by a ruptured gas pipe, and large clouds of smoke soared into the sky. It took 60 to 90 minutes to shut off the gas after the explosion, according to San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag. The explosion and the resulting fire leveled 35 houses and damaged many more. Three of the damaged houses, deemed uninhabitable, were torn down in December, bringing the total to 38. About 200 firefighters battled the eight alarm fire that resulted from the explosions. The explosion excavated an asymmetric crater 167 feet (51 m) long, 26 feet (7.9 m) wide and 40 feet (12 m) deep along the sidewalk of Glenview Drive in front of 1701 Earl Avenue (a corner house), but many of the destroyed homes were eastward in the 1600 block of Claremont Drive.
The fire continued to burn for several hours after the initial explosion. The explosion compromised a water main and required firefighters to truck in water from outside sources. Firefighters were assisted by residents who dragged fire hoses nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 m) to working hydrants. Ordinary citizens drove injured people and burn victims to the hospital. Mutual aid responded from all over the Bay Area, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who sent 25 fire engines, 4 airtankers, 2 air attack planes, and 1 helicopter. The fire was only fifty percent contained by 10 pm PDT and continued to burn until about 11:40 am PDT the next day.
As of September 29, 2010, the death toll was eight people. Among the eight deaths was 20-year-old Jessica Morales, who was with her boyfriend, Joseph Ruigomez, at the epicenter of the fire (his home) on the corner of Earl Ave. Despite his proximity to the epicenter of the fire, Mr. Ruigomez survived but spent nearly five months recovering in the St. Francis Hospital Burn Center. Two other people at the Claremont address close to the explosion were among those killed: Jacqueline Greig, 44, and her daughter Janessa Greig, 13. Greig worked for the California Public Utilities Commission, in a small unit that advocates for consumer rights pertaining to natural gas regulations. She had spent part of the summer evaluating PG&E's expansion plans and investment proposals to replace out-of-date pipelines. Also killed in the blast were Lavonne Bullis, 82, Greg Bullis, 50, and Will Bullis, 17.
A Red Cross shelter was set up at the Veterans Memorial Recreation Center in San Bruno, and the Blood Centers of the Pacific issued an emergency appeal for blood donations. Some people were evacuated to Tanforan and Bayhill Shopping Centers. All elementary schools in the San Bruno Park Elementary School District, as well as Parkside Junior High, were closed on September 10. However, Capuchino High School remained open. Some residents who were evacuated from their homes were allowed to return to those undamaged on Sunday, September 12.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company
The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is the owner of the pipeline. On September 10, PG&E's president, Christopher Johns, said the company was not able to approach the source of the explosion to investigate the cause. An official press release issued by PG&E on September 10 reported the pipe was a 30-inch (76 cm) steel transmission line. PG&E shares fell 8% on the Friday after the explosion reducing the company's market capital by $1.57 billion.
PG&E also reduced their operating pressures by 20% after investigations revealed the pipeline may have been improperly installed.
After the San Bruno pipeline failure, PG&E was required to re-evaluate how it determines the maximum operating pressure for some 1,800 miles of pipeline throughout its system. Specifically, the California Public Utilities Commission asked PG&E officials to show their lines had been tested or examined in a way that could prove the pipeline can withstand the current maximum operating pressure. At the March 15, 2011 deadline for this Report, PG&E was unable to provide documentation for details of some of its gas transmission pipelines.
In response to the disaster and a subsequent decision (D.11-06-017) by the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E unveiled a plan in August 2011 to modernize and enhance safety of its gas transmission operations over several years, including automation of over 200 valves, strength testing over 700 miles (1,100 km) of pipe, replacing 185 miles (298 km), and upgrading another 200 miles (320 km) or so to allow in-line inspection. The plan was divided into two phases. The first phase, scheduled to end in 2014, targeted pipeline segments in urban areas, those not built to modern standards, and those which had not been strength tested. Project funding of $769 million was the subject of a PG&E application (R.11-02-019) for a three-year increase in gas rates starting January 2012.
On November 6, 2011, an explosion occurred near Woodside, California during strength testing of PG&E pipelines. The explosion caused a mudslide in the area, however no casualties were reported.
California state government
Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado made a state of emergency declaration and signed an executive order to provide aid to victims. State regulators ordered PG&E to survey all natural gas lines the company controls in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger later went through the area, after returning from a trade mission in Asia.
Use of technology
The San Bruno explosion was notable for the fact that local technology companies such as Cisco Systems and Google dispatched their emergency response teams to provide emergency communications and enhanced mapping information at the request of responders at the scene. Coordinated through the nonprofit InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, and Disasters), with support from the Carnegie-Mellon University Disaster Management Initiative, a number of unaffiliated technology volunteers were requested to support many of the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) response efforts, coordinated through the Planning Section Chief.
San Bruno Police declared the area a crime scene to determine if foul play was involved. The National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation into the cause of the explosion. During the days prior to the explosion, some residents reported smelling natural gas in the area. A source within PG&E reported a break in natural gas line number 132 caused the explosion. The gas line is a large 30-inch (76 cm) steel pipe. National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher Hart said at a briefing that the segment of pipe that blew out onto the street was 28 feet (8.5 m) long, the explosion sent that piece of pipe about 100 feet (30 m) and the blast created a crater 167 feet (51 m) long and 26 feet (7.9 m) wide. He said that an inspection of the severed pipe chunk revealed that it was made of several smaller sections that had been welded together and that a seam ran its length. The presence of the welds did not necessarily indicate the pipe had been repaired, he said. Newer pipelines are usually manufactured into the shape needed for these applications, rather than having multiple weaker welded sections that could potentially leak or break.
In January 2011, federal investigators reported that they found numerous defective welds in the pipeline. The thickness of the pipe varied, and some welds did not penetrate the pipes completely. As PG&E increased the pressure in the pipes to meet growing energy demand, the defective welds were further weakened until their failure. As the pipeline was installed in 1956, modern testing methods such as X-rays were not available to detect the problem at that time.
The NTSB held a 3-day public hearing on March 1 through 3, 2011, to gather additional facts for the ongoing investigation of the pipeline rupture and explosion.
Parties to the public hearing included:
- Pacific Gas & Electric
- California Public Utilities Commission
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
- The City of San Bruno
- International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245
The NTSB also published call logs from the Milpitas PG&E gas terminal to a gas control center. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) replacement was started at the Milpitas terminal several hours before the San Bruno explosion.
It was revealed that PG&E had done pipeline replacement work on Line 132 along parts of the San Andreas Fault zone, near this area, to reduce the likelihood of the pipeline failing from an earthquake. However, the replacement was stopped short of the area that failed in 2010.
On January 13, 2012, an independent audit from the State of California issued a report stating that PG&E had illegally diverted over $100 million from a fund used for safety operations, and instead used it for executive compensation and bonuses.
Over 100 plaintiffs, through approximately 20 law firms, have sued Pacific Gas and Electric and/or its parent, PG&E Corporation, in the Superior Courts of California in over 70 separate lawsuits. Virtually all were filed in the local state court, the Superior Court of California for the County of San Mateo. On February 24, 2011, the court's presiding judge, Mark Forcum, approved a petition for "coordination" of the San Bruno cases as authorized by California Code of Civil Procedure Section 404. After Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye approved the petition in her capacity as chair of the state Judicial Council, all the cases were transferred to Judge Steven L. Dylina on March 4, 2011, and designated as Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding (JCCP) No. 4648, PG&E "San Bruno Fire" Cases.
As is typical in complex mass tort litigation, the court designated "liaison counsel" for the plaintiffs at an initial case management conference on May 26, 2011. On June 3, 2011, through such counsel, the plaintiffs filed a consolidated Master Complaint. Individual plaintiffs then filed "adoptions" of the allegations in the Master Complaint over the next three weeks. Plaintiffs' liaison counsel are Frank M. Pitre of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP and Dario de Ghetaldi and Amanda L. Riddle, both of Corey, Luzaich, de Ghetaldi, Nastari & Riddle LLP.
On July 5, 2011, PG&E and PG&E Corp. filed their Answer to the Master Complaint, through their defense counsel, Kate Dyer of Clarence, Dyer & Cohen LLP, John J. Lyons of Latham & Watkins LLP, and Gayle L. Gough of Sedgwick LLP. A week later, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story attacking the defendants for invoking certain routine defenses in their answer, like state-of-the-art and comparative negligence.
In July 2012, the plaintiffs lodged a deposition in San Mateo County Superior Court claiming that PG&E management ignored employee concerns about GIS data inaccuracies that impeded inspection of the pipeline.
In October 2012, public hearings on the San Bruno pipeline blast at the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) were suspended for state regulators and PG&E to strike a deal about the fines. Rene Morales, mother of Jessica Morales who was burned alive and one of eight people that was killed in the fire requested that California Governor Jerry Brown appoint a new president of the California PUC. Also in October 2012, former Senator George J. Mitchell was chosen to lead talks in the settlement of fines in the explosion. In December 2012 the California Public Utilities Commission decided that 55% of the long term costs for PG&E pipeline inspection and safety upgrades of $229 million will be borne by electricity rate payers.
On April 1, 2014, PG&E was indicted by a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court, San Francisco, for multiple violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 relating to its record keeping and pipeline "integrity management" practices. An additional indictment was issued by the grand jury on July 29, 2014, charging the company with obstruction of justice for lying to the NTSB regarding its pipeline testing policy, bringing the total number of counts in the indictment to 28. Under the new indictment, the company could be fined as much as $1.3 billion, based on profit associated with the alleged misconduct, in addition to $2.5 billion for state regulatory violations.
On September 2, 2014, California regulators proposed a $1.4 billion penalty against Pacific Gas & Electric for the explosion.
On September 16, 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Carol Brown, the chief of staff for the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, had been communicating with PG&E executives to help move litigation to judges expected to be friendly to PG&E's side.  As of October 2014 the judge shopping scandal is under federal investigation. 
Brigham McCown, the former head for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, called for the creation of a national commission to examine the problems surrounding high-pressure fuel pipelines that have been built in residential areas. In his article with The Wall Street Journal, McCown says it often takes an "incident like this one to force change." He also suggested installing a "no man's land" around some pipelines in hopes of preventing another disaster. The Bay Citizen and C-SPAN also included interviews with McCown about pipeline excavation and company liability.
On September 9, 2012, a memorial to the victims was unveiled in the San Bruno City Park.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to 2010 San Bruno explosion and fire.|
- Before and after comparison photos
- Photo gallery Photos of the disaster from San Francisco Chronicle.
- San Bruno explosion map Interactive map from Los Angeles Times.
- Resources for San Bruno Residents (ABC7)
- Aerial photograph of the aftermath – Taken on 9/11/2010
- Before and after comparison photos
- Photo gallery and links to stories and information
- Commercial pilots in the air realized it was not a plane crash – Video
- Surveillance video of the explosion from a gas station one quarter mile away – Video
- Surveillance video from inside a grocery store one quarter mile away – Video
- National Pipeline Mapping System – Location of gas transport pipelines