Saturday, September 11, 2010

San Bruno Fire: Enter Investigators - and Lawyers

"Gas explosion, San Bruno: how authorities will investigate it"
Christian Science Monitor (September 10, 2010)

"The massive explosion Thursday evening in San Bruno, Calif., which killed at least four people and leveled 38 homes, was apparently sparked by a ruptured natural-gas line. Now, as authorities and residents deal with the aftermath of the gas explosion in San Bruno, attention is turning to the regulators and the regulations that govern the massive skein of pipelines moving natural gas in the United States.

"The national regulatory program to assure the safe transportation of natural gas, petroleum, and other hazardous materials is administered by the Department of Transportation - specifically, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, acting through the Office of Pipeline Safety.

"These regulators oversee more than 2 million miles of pipelines throughout the United States, which provide 25 percent of the nation’s energy, according to the American Gas Association (AGA). More than 650,000 miles of pipeline were added between 1984 and 2004...."

Despite the article's title, there isn't all that much detail on how the San Bruno explosion and fire will be investigated. Naturally enough, for an article that's probably intended as a quick introduction for a non-technical audience. Here's a sample:

"...A key part of the investigation will be finding the precise point of the explosion. Additional things to look into, say 'fire and explosion' Michigan attorney Mr. Stuart Sklar and others, include: Has the pipe failed before? Was the explosion a result of faulty pipe fittings, corrosion, or nearby excavation?..."

Aside from providing gainful employment for lawyers, investigating this sort of accident is important - so that the odds of similar events happening can be lowered.

The Lemming suspects that there will be a bit of hand-wringing about dangerous technology in general and fuel like natural gas in particular. The stuff's dangerous, no question about that. But even back in the 'good old days' it was possible to hurt yourself by falling into the cooking fire - or cutting yourself while knapping a new spearhead.

On a more positive note, there's this paragraph, at the end of the article:

"...According to the AGA, reported explosions have declined 28 percent from 1986 to 2004. Natural gas causes an average of about 2,000 home fires a year, according to the National Fire Protection Association."

One of the down sides to natural gas as a fuel is that it's a gas - and isn't necessarily visible if it's leaking into a room. And then there's the occasional fellow who'll go looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.

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