The group headed by the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the Sept. 9 natural gas pipeline rupture and explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno released an interim report that ruled out outside corrosion and damage caused by a third party as the cause for the blast, but found that part of the pipe near the rupture was constructed with seam-welded pipe, which owner Pacific Gas & Electric reported as seamless.

NTSB investigator examines welds on a pipeline section recovered from the San Bruno explosion.
Photo: NTSB
NTSB investigator examines welds on a pipeline section recovered from the San Bruno explosion.

The group, chaired by the NTSB, includes technical experts from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and PG&E. PG&E survey sheets and charts for the rupture location indicate that the pipeline was constructed of 30-in.-diameter seamless steel pipe (API5L Grade X42) with a 0.375-in. thick wall. Evidence obtained so far, however, indicates the pipeline in the area of the rupture was constructed, at least in part, with seam-welded pipe, says the NTSB.

�After the ruptured pipe surfaces were thoroughly surveyed, all of the asphalt coating was removed and the pipe was cleaned to allow for visual inspection and nondestructive testing (NDT) of the surfaces,� according to the report.

The NTSB says the condition of the welds was evaluated by visual inspection, x-ray radiography and magnetic particle inspection to document any defects or irregularities in the material. Pipe thickness surveys were conducted using ultrasonic thickness testing. Additionally, the pipe pieces were laser scanned for complete dimensional documentation.

The fracture surfaces of the ruptured pipe pieces were examined using low-magnification optical microscopes. Metallurgists are currently in the process of using this information to determine the direction of crack propagation and the fracture origin and failure mechanisms.

The NTSB says that investigators found that while the longitudinal seams on some of the pipe segments were fusion-welded from both inside and outside the pipe, some were fusion-welded only from the outside of the pipe. In order to understand this variance, investigators are in the process of researching pipe welding standards and practices in effect at the time the pipeline was installed in 1956.

�The outer surfaces of the ruptured pipe pieces revealed no evidence of external corrosion,� says the report. �No dents, gouges, or other physical indications consistent with excavation damage were observed. Additionally, no physical evidence suggests that a pre-existing leak occurred in the ruptured pipe pieces.� Ongoing lab work includes chemical compositional analysis and mechanical property testing of samples taken from the ruptured pipe pieces and evaluation of environmental factors at the accident site. �The investigation is still in an early phase and there is much factual information to be developed before the Safety Board is positioned to determine the probable cause of the accident,� says the report.

Investigators are examining other areas, including pipeline control and operations, regulation and oversight, human performance, survival factors, and pipeline maintenance and records.

The final report on the cause of the blast is due next September.

Meanwhile, PG&E released a statement on the NTSB report and says the �meticulous investigation� is ongoing and �draws no definitive conclusions as to the cause of the accident.�

The NTSB report finds no evidence of external corrosion on the ruptured pipe pieces, no evidence of excavation damage and no physical evidence suggesting a pre-existing leak.

Regarding the seam-welded or seamless pipe issue, PG&E notes that the report �does note a discrepancy in PG&E�s records on the type of pipe installed at the San Bruno location. However, at no time did the pressure in the pipe exceed the Maximum Allowable Operating Pressure nor did the discrepancy impact the required maintenance and inspection protocols.�

Meanwhile, a letter dated Feb. 13, 2009 from Sunil Shori, utilities engineer for the CPUC, to Glen Carter, director of gas engineering for PG&E, has surfaced in the media, throwing doubts into the utility�s overall gas pipe inspection operations. �It is apparent to us that the failure of PG&E to provide adequate procedures, or the failure of PG&E personnel to follow established procedures, has resulted in safety risks that would most likely not have been created had the safety regulations been complied with,� writes Shori. �Although PG&E has implemented programs to address these safety risks going forward, we see no reason why PG&E should not have been able to address these risks during the course of normal construction, operations and maintenance activities occurring in past years.�