Aging Natural Gas Pipeline Finally Fails

By ThinkReliability Staff

Few ever contemplate the complex system of utilities surrounding us.  The beauty of our modern standard of living is that usually there is little reason to think about those things.  Those rare cases where power isn’t available at the flip of a switch, or fresh water at the turn of a faucet usually make the local news.

Sadly, the community of San Bruno was faced with much more than simple inconvenience.  On September 9, 2010, an explosion ripped through the suburban community, ultimately killing 8 and destroying or damaging 100 homes.  The explosion was caused by a ruptured natural gas pipeline, and it appears that a slight increase in pipe pressure led to the final failure.  That change in pressure resulted from a glitch in maintenance procedures at a pipeline  terminal.  While ultimately that glitch may have been the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, it is clear from the Cause Map analysis that the straw pile was already fairly high.

Based on National Transportation Safety Board reports, both poor pipe construction and inadequate record-keeping played a major role in the failure.  The pipes, at or near their life expectancy, were already considered too thin by the 1950s’ standards when they were originally installed.  Furthermore improperly done welding made the pipes susceptible to corrosion.  Compounding these issues was the fact that PG&E, the utilities company responsible the pipeline, wasn’t even aware that the San Bruno pipeline had such extensive welding.  This matters because gas pressures are calculated based on a number of inputs, including the construction of the pipeline.  Even that slight increase in pressure proved to be more than the aging pipe could handle.

Natural gas pipelines are fairly extensive in the United States, and with suburban sprawl many communities live close to these pipelines.  In fact, many states have already taken steps to prevent similar events from occurring in their community.  Multiple utilities companies have been mandated to install newer pipelines, as in Texas and Washington.  Additionally, the federal government requires that newly constructed pipelines must be inspected by “smart pigs” – robots able to maintain and inspect pipeline systems.  However, modernizing this aging infrastructure will be expensive for many communities.

Perhaps there are easy, inexpensive interim solutions available.  The Cause Map analysis identifies all causes leading to the explosion, and then provides a systematic method for developing solutions.  Hopefully some of the solutions generated will prevent future disasters, like the one in San Bruno.