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California Gas Explosion Raises New Questions About Pipeline Safety

At least four people are dead in San Bruno, Calif., after a natural gas pipeline break caused an explosion that leveled dozens of homes and damaged many others.

Quite a few questions remain about what caused the explosion and details are still unfolding. But the explosion will likely bring more attention to the issue of pipeline safety, which I’ve written about extensively in a series of articles published this summer.

As I reported in August, many industry observers say pipeline oversight by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is severely lacking.

According to my story:

A 2002 law mandates the inspection of pipes in “high consequence areas” — regions near natural resources like rivers, or populated ares like towns or cities. But because only portions of pipeline in the high consequence areas must undergo safety inspections, companies are under no federal regulatory obligation to adequately or consistently inspect thousands of miles of pipeline outside of those areas.

In addition, I reported that there are no federal regulations that require pipelines to be set back a safe distance from houses or commercial buildings.

Moreover, there are no federal laws or regulations to ensure that houses and commercial buildings are constructed a safe distance away from pipelines. This lack of a so-called “setback” regulation raises particular concerns when it comes to natural gas pipelines, which, if broken, can burst into flames causing huge fireballs.

“There aren’t any regulations at all about setbacks. You can build a house right next to a pipeline,” Weimer says. The only rule regarding setbacks is that a landowner cannot build on the right of way easement used to build the pipeline, Julia Piscitelli, a PHMSA spokesperson says. “Generally, pipeline burial locations are determined by local, county and state ordinances,” she said.

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