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Gas Line Rupture in California raises questions

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A thunderous gas pipeline explosion that devastated a residential neighborhood in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno on September 9th is being investigated by federal authorities and can potentially take up to a year or more to complete.

Eight people have died and at least 50 people sustained injuries in the explosion that left a giant crater and dozens of destroyed homes in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility that operates the line, is trying to determine what caused the steel gas pipe to rupture and ignite. Federal investigators will analyze the pipeline’s condition, as well as its maintenance history, pressure levels and safeguards put in place to prevent pressure from building up, NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said.

State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno and surrounding cities, said both state and federal investigators are looking into reports by some residents that they had smelled gas days before the explosion.

The residents “deserve to know if PG&E used correct procedures in the days and weeks leading up to the explosion,” Hill said. The utility is checking its records for complaints.

Past Gas Pipeline Explosions

There were 163 significant accidents involving natural gas pipelines that killed 10 people and injured 59, in 2009.

Federal officials have tallied 2,740 significant gas pipeline accidents nationwide –over the past two decades – including 992 in which someone was killed or required hospitalization, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

PG&E has had 56 incidents including nine explosions that together injured or killed at least 16 people. Not including the Sept. 9 explosion.

Catastrophic Injuries

Oil and gas, by nature, are extremely flammable substances and when these substances are subjected to extreme pressure, the chances of an explosion are even greater. Gas fires often involve catastrophic and deadly injuries which include extremely painful burns, brain injuries, amputations and illness caused by toxic fumes.

On average, more than 15,000 people are injured and over 3,000 people lose their lives each year due to fires and explosions.

Lawsuits & Settlements Against Gas Companies

In November 2004, a backhoe punctured an underground fuel pipeline causing an explosion and fireball that continued to burn for nearly a week. Five people were killed several others were injured. About 20 separate lawsuits were filed in Contra Costa County and coordinated by the State Judicial Council into one proceeding entitled the “Gas Pipeline Explosion Cases”. Ultimately, more than $90 Million dollars was paid by a several defendants.

In November 2006, a woman who lost both parents in an explosion that killed 15 people and injured 170 at BP’s Texas City plant in 2005, settled her lawsuit against the company. BP settled the other fatality cases and reached agreements on hundreds of lawsuits. It also put aside $1.6 billion to resolve legal disputes related to the explosion.

Also in 2006, Tara and Heath Carey, who lost two young daughters in a gas explosion in 2002, accepted a $17.2 million settlement from NStar Gas Co.