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Opening Statement, Public Hearing In Connection With the Investigation of Pipeline Accident, San Bruno, CA, September 9, 2010, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Public Hearing In Connection With the Investigation of Pipeline Accident, San Bruno, CA, September 9, 2010, Washington, DC

Good morning. I am Debbie Hersman, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Along with my fellow Board Members, we are serving as the Board of Inquiry for this hearing. I am joined by Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener.

I would like to recognize Vice Chairman Hart for serving as the spokesperson for NTSB's on-scene activities in San Bruno and also for representing the agency by testifying about our investigative activities before the U.S. House and Senate last fall.

Today we begin a three day public hearing on the accident in San Bruno, California, involving a Pacific Gas and Electric Company natural gas transmission line. On September 9, 2010, a little after 6:00 pm, as commuters were arriving home from work and families were sitting down at the dinner table, a 30 inch diameter natural gas pipeline ruptured in San Bruno, CA. The explosion created a 76 foot long crater, and the released natural gas ignited. A 28-foot segment of the pipe was blasted out of the ground and landed 100 feet away. Over an hour passed before valves were manually closed and the gas stopped flowing.

The toll was significant: eight lives were lost, numerous others were injured, homes were destroyed and a neighborhood was evacuated. The footage on TV was dramatic – and many of us were left thinking: how did this happen? And could it happen again?

On behalf of my fellow Board members and the NTSB staff, I offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured in this accident. Nothing can replace the loss of a loved one or repair the trauma of a life-changing injury. But we do have the opportunity – and the obligation – to take every step possible to ensure that the lessons of this tragedy are well-learned and that the circumstances are not repeated. As we continue with our investigation, we are mindful that on September 9th, the community of San Bruno was forever changed by an event that most residents had never even contemplated.

I'd like to extend the Board's appreciation to the first responders in the San Bruno community who responded in the moments and early hours after the explosion. In the days following the accident, Vice Chairman Hart met with many local, state and federal officials. In the months since then, the community leaders representing San Bruno have supported the work of the NTSB to conduct an independent and thorough investigation. Like many of our prominent accident investigations, this accident has the interest of Members of Congress. Senators Boxer and Feinstein and Representative Speier have held local meetings, introduced pipeline safety legislation, and visited our laboratories to understand this tragedy, and they share our commitment to ensuring the safety of the public.

Approximately 2.5 million miles of pipelines exist in the United States today. They run throughout our neighborhoods and provide energy to our homes and businesses. Because of the strong safety record of these pipelines and the fact that they're typically underground, most people don't even know they exist. Therefore it is all the more important that pipeline operators and regulators make sure the nation's pipeline system is as safe as possible.

Over the next 3 days, our hearing will serve as an exercise in accountability and transparency. It gives the public a window into our investigative process to ensure that:

  • The Safety Board is conducting a thorough and fair investigation;
  • Federal and state agencies are regulating the industry adequately;
  • Utility companies are operating safely; and
  • Products have been manufactured and perform safely.

The NTSB is investigating five pipeline accidents at this time involving two hazardous liquid releases and three natural gas explosions – in Florida, Texas, Michigan, Illinois and this one in California. Four of these occurred in the last year. However, there have been 9 other fatal accidents in the past year that the NTSB has elected to delegate to other authorities due to our current investigative workload and staffing constraints. Two of these accidents were delegated to PHMSA and 7 were delegated to state authorities, including the two recent accidents in Pennsylvania. Although PHMSA and the state officials are investigating these accidents, we continue to monitor them in support of our ongoing investigations, and for new or novel issues that may have a nationwide impact.

The Safety Board does not hold public hearings on every investigation. We simply don't have the resources. However, we do hold several public hearings each year where there is a wide and sustained interest in the accident and, in this case, an opportunity for lessons to be learned by discussing the facts and circumstances of the accident in the public view.

We are still in the fact-finding stage of the San Bruno investigation. This hearing is a critical component of our investigation – allowing us to gather additional facts and further develop the record on how and why the pipeline ruptured.

Once the fact-finding stage is completed, the Safety Board will prepare an accident report. We will then hold a public Board meeting to consider the evidence, review the analyses and determine the probable cause. We will also consider proposed safety recommendations.

The Safety Board does not always wait until the investigation is completed before issuing safety recommendations. Early in this investigation, we identified safety concerns that required urgent action, and so on January 3, 2011, the Safety Board issued 7 safety recommendations – 6 of which were classified "urgent." These were issued to PHMSA (the federal regulator), CPUC (the state regulator) and PG&E (the pipeline operator).

The urgent recommendations call on pipeline operators and regulators to ensure that the records, surveys, and documents for all pipeline systems accurately reflect the pipeline infrastructure as built throughout the United States so that maximum safe operating pressures are accurately calculated and, in the absence of such records, conduct hydrostatic pressure testing to establish the safe maximum operating pressure of the pipeline.

All recipients of the urgent recommendations are working to address them; but I would like to specifically acknowledge PHMSA for their quick response to our recommendation. Within a day of receiving the recommendation, PHMSA issued guidance informing the pipeline industry of the circumstances leading up to and consequences of the San Bruno rupture, as we had recommended.

Now, a few comments on how we will conduct the hearing.

Last week, on February 23, 2011, the NTSB conducted a prehearing conference attended by the Safety Board's Technical Panel and the parties to this hearing. At that conference we delineated the issues to be discussed at this hearing and developed the list of witnesses and exhibits. The witnesses were selected because of their ability to provide the best available information on the issues. Hard copies of the witness list are available in the atrium outside the Boardroom, and both the witness list and exhibits list are posted on the NTSB web site and available in the docket.

There are five broad issues that will be discussed at this hearing. They are:

  1. Pacific Gas and Electric Operations
  2. Pacific Gas and Electric's Integrity Management Program
  3. Public Awareness
  4. State and Federal Oversight
  5. Industry Wide Technology

At this point, I will introduce the NTSB Technical Panel that will assist the Board of Inquiry and who possess operational and technical expertise in pipeline safety.

They include:

Ms. Lorenda Ward, Hearing Officer,
Ms. Dana Sanzo, Survival Factors Group Chairman,
Mr. Ravi Chhatre, Investigator in Charge,
Mr. Matt Nicholson, Pipeline Investigator,
Mr. Bob Trainor, Chief of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials,
Mr. Karl Gunther, Operations Group Chairman,
Mr. Mike Brown, Transportation Safety Specialist,
Mr. Michael Budinski, Chief Materials Lab,
Dr. Carl Schultheisz, Materials Investigator, and
Mr. Frank Zakar, Materials Investigator,

Also assisting are:

Mr. Peter Knudson, Office of Public Affairs,
Mr. Elias Kontanis, Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance,
Ms. Nancy Mason and Denise Whitfield, administrative support; they will also distribute copies of the exhibits to the witnesses, and
Mr. Mark Jones and Mr. Antion Downs, audio/visuals.

I will now introduce the parties designated to participate in the public hearing. As prescribed in the Safety Board's rules, we designate as a party those persons, government agencies, companies and associations whose participation we deem necessary in the public interest and whose special knowledge will contribute to the development of pertinent evidence.

As I call the name of the party, I ask the designated spokesperson for that party to state – for the record – his or her name, title, and affiliation:

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration: Mr. Jeff Wiese,
Pacific Gas and Electric Company: Mr. Kirk Johnson,
California Public Utilities Commission: Mr. Paul Clanon,
City of San Bruno: Ms. Connie Jackson,
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 1245): Ms. Debbie Mazzanti.

On behalf of the entire Safety Board, I'd like to thank the parties and the many other municipal, county, state and federal agencies, for their cooperation and support of this investigation to date. The voluminous docket released this morning is a testament to the depth of teamwork and cooperation we have received from those involved.

We will proceed over the next 3 days as follows:

We will begin this morning with a presentation from the Investigator in Charge of the accident investigation, Mr. Chhatre, who will summarize facts about the accident and the investigative activities to date.

We will then proceed, in sequence, one panel at a time for each of the hearing issues identified.

In each panel, the witnesses will be called, introduced by name, and their qualifications will be noted. The witnesses will testify under oath. They will be questioned by the Technical Panel, then by the designated spokesperson for each party, and finally, by the Board of Inquiry. Due to time constraints, and as a courtesy to other participants, we will limit questioning periods for the parties and each of the members of the Board of Inquiry to 5 minutes.

After the first round of questioning is completed, I will permit a second round if the record needs to be clarified or if new matters have been raised that require further explanation. If a party would like a second round of questions, the designated spokesperson should make the request and state the reason for the request. I expect any second round to be very brief with no repetition of previous questions. Once a witness has completed his or her testimony, they may be recalled for further questioning later in the hearing, so please check in with the Hearing Officer, Ms. Ward, if you will be absent during the course of the hearing.

This hearing is not adversarial; there will be no adverse parties or interests, and no formal pleadings or cross-examination. The Safety Board will not determine liability, and questions directed to issues of liability will not be permitted. As Chairman of the Board of Inquiry, I will make all rulings on the admissibility of evidence, and my rulings will be final.

The transcript of the hearing, the exhibits entered into the record and any presentations, along with other records of the investigation, will become part of the Safety Board's public docket. They are available on the Board's website.