January 3, 2011 / 9:30 PM / 9 years ago

NTSB seeks urgent review of pipeline records

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. safety investigators, acting in response to a deadly California gas line explosion, urgently recommended on Monday that pipeline operators review their records to ensure their systems were built correctly.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, which also seek cooperation from state and federal regulators, address potential recordkeeping problems investigators fear could create conditions in which a pipeline is operated at a higher pressure than designed to withstand.

Although the board has not yet determined a probable cause in the PG&E Corp gas line rupture near San Francisco that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes in September, investigators also want to ensure that maximum safe operating pressures are accurately calculated nationwide.

“This accident exposed issues that merit further attention and have implications for the pipeline infrastructure throughout the country,” NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in a statement.

Shares of PG&E fell 0.9 percent to close at $47.39 on the New York Stock Exchange.

In the PG&E case, investigators found apparent discrepancies in recordkeeping related to construction of the blown 30-inch pipeline.

The NTSB, in three recommendations to PG&E, said the company should immediately search records to identify all gas transmission lines that have not yet undergone tests to validate a safe operating pressure and take appropriate steps in response.

PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the company is reviewing the NTSB recommendations, but has already begun a review of its records for accuracy.

Pipeline regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, in December ordered stepped up inspections of PG&E pipelines in response to NTSB questions about steam welding in the ruptured San Bruno pipeline.

The NTSB separately asked the CPUC to oversee PG&E records review and to oversee any related pipeline testing.

The NTSB is also concerned that pipeline operators more broadly may have problems in their records that “could potentially compromise the safe operation of pipelines throughout the United States.”

The NTSB wants regulators to ensure that records, surveys and documents “accurately reflect the pipeline infrastructure” as constructed nationally so that operating pressures are calculated properly.

“We believe this safety-critical issue needs to be examined carefully to ensure that operators are accurately gauging their risk and that pipelines are being operated at pressures no higher than that for which they were built to withstand,” Hersman said.

The NTSB, which makes recommendations to federal and state regulators and industry but cannot enforce them, said it would hold a “fact-finding” hearing on the PG&E explosion in March.

Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Walter Bagley and Sofina Mirza-Reid

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