Household Hazards

How everyday products make us sick.

Pipe Nightmares

Protection from pipeline explosions is not a question of personal choice

The September natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California that killed seven and destroyed nearly forty homes has raised many unanswered questions. The most obvious concern, of course, is that there may be other similar disasters waiting to happen. The personal choice between using a gas or electric cooking appliance in the home is one thing - any quick check-in with foodie websites will teach you what a hot-button item that topic is - but individual preference doesn't matter much if your home is blown apart from the outside in.

Among the many speculative theories invoked for the San Bruno catastrophe, one of the most exotic may have been posed by a San Francisco Chronicle headline query, "Bacteria a culprit in explosion?" (http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-09-24/news/24087068_1_corrosion-p...). The news report that followed featured a decade-old New Mexico gas conflagration that killed 12 persons that was eventually linked to microbial growth corroding the pipeline metal, eating away at it from within. This scenario comes across a little bit like a plot device from an old Star Trek episode in which the integrity of the spaceship's hull is being insidiously destroyed by a heretofore unknown, alien life-form.

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Reading to the end of the Chronicle story, one learns that the more proximal culprit may be less exotic: the New Mexico pipeline's operator, which the National Transportation Safety Board investigators found did not have an adequate maintenance program in place. Moreover, Federal oversight did not catch this failure before it was too late.

The day after the local San Francisco press "Pipeline Flesh-Eating Bacteria" scare, the New York Times published a far more cogent, national-level overview of gas pipeline safety, citing previous General Accounting Office and Congressional Research Service critical reports on the topic (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/25/us/25pipeline.html). This is arguably a U.S.-wide safety crisis, in which almost 3 million miles of gas pipelines are under-inspected and the utility operators have little reason to be concerned with pesky inspectors or irritating monetary fines (no one is even talking criminal actions).

At the eye of this hurricane of inaction is yet-another-Federal-agency-no-one--ever-heard of, actually not literally the NAFA-NOEHO, but the PHMSA: the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Remember the Federal "Minerals Management Service" aka the agency asleep at the switch that turns off oil well spills? PHMSA makes that operation look good by comparison. According to the New York Times report, fines for pipeline safety enforcement issued by the agency are nearly off by 50% compared to 6 years ago, even though pipeline "accidents" nationwide over that interval have killed more than three score victims and injured hundreds. In recent Congressional testimony, Cynthia Quarterman, Administrator of the PHMSA, vigorously defended their record (http://www.phmsa.dot.gov/staticfiles/PHMSA/DownloadableFiles/Sena...). C-SPAN aficionados may already have caught this one live.

The prism of gas pipeline safety proves a useful tool to separate out the different hues in our ongoing national debate on the correct role for governmental agency. Indeed, virulent anti-regulators should be pleased with the moribund status of the PHMSA and might even argue that free market forces should be relied on as the principal corrective in such matters (for example, lower property values for neighborhoods likely to go up in flames). My own preference is for public health protection through vigorous and effective policing of our pipelines, a stance that I can presume makes some people see red.

Paul D. Blanc, M.D., M.S.P.H., is Professor of Medicine and Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

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