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Licensed Engineers and the safeguard of the public
In the early 20th century, boiler explosions caused thousands of deaths. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is credited with saving many lives by implementing boiler and pressure vessel standards in 1914. These standards were then adopted by jurisdictions and enforced as code.
Unfortunately, utilities and industrial corporations have a loophole in state law, and are not even required to use licensed engineers (except for civil engineers). The Rules of the Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, California Code of Regulations, Title 16, Division 5, §424, ¶1, allows an employee of a public utility or corporation to practice engineering without a license, simply because they’re an employee of the utility or corporation.
(1) For the purposes of this section, “legally qualified” means having an appropriate license as a professional engineer, or by being an employee of the Federal Government, or, except for civil engineers, by virtue of being an employee of a manufacturing, mining, public utility, research and development, or other industrial corporation; or by holding an appropriate license as a contractor.
One of the main purposes of licensing engineers is to safeguard the public. Clearly, public safety is not served in this instance. It is undeniable that utilities and industrial corporations impact public safety, and that is only reinforced by the recent pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA. It left at least seven dead and 52 injured while destroying 37 homes and causing other significant property damage.
Generally, engineering decisions are made to ensure safety. If a project is too expensive to be safe, then it should not be undertaken. Engineers take an oath upon licensing to uphold their responsibilities, which include protecting the safety of others. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether those responsible at the public utility took the same oath.
The use of licensed engineers does not guarantee that accidents won’t occur. However, the use of licensed engineers from independent third parties may minimize similar, future events. Independent licensed professionals should be unbiased, and should not care how much it will cost utilities to fix their gas lines. The independent licensed professional will be motivated to do what is safe, rather than jeopardizing his/her reputation and company. Similarly, independent auditors do not guarantee good accounting, but they help to minimize poor accounting.
Concerning the location of natural gas pipelines, we all hope for the best, but individually can do very little to avert the worst. Various reports detailing the routing of major natural gas pipelines throughout the Bay area have provided relief for some, and concern for others. The utility itself observed that the failed pipeline in San Bruno did not actually reach the “critical” list. It is disconcerting that there are pressurized gas lines that the utility considers more dangerous than the one that recently failed and caused such devastation.
After the explosion, the press, relying on experts, reported possible modes of failure. These included internal corrosion and erosion attributed to anaerobic microorganisms and external corrosion due to acids—all made worse by the passage of 50 to 60 years. (Recall the failure of a suspension cable on the Golden Gate bridge due to salt air, corrosion and high tensile forces). Commentators researched the recent maintenance history of the pipeline, and noted that inspectors found little reason for expediting a scheduled 2014 overhaul.
Other experts commented that actual inspection of a 24 to 30 inch pipeline pressurized to nearly 400 psi, could not be safely undertaken. The current use of internal pipeline inspection devices, or pigs, could not be implemented on a 1950’s vintage iron pipeline due to the lack of insertion or exit points.
Throughout our cities, counties, states and nations, relatively antiquated delivery systems provide energy, water, and gases to population centers. In the central valley of California, farms and farming communities exist because of a system of water levees that have outlived their intended life. These earthen dams have outlasted any generous forecast of life expectancy, and we cannot afford to have them fail. Conveniently, though, we also can’t afford to have them repaired or enhanced—much less rebuilt.
In this age of electronics, fiber optics, and wireless communications, new and existing pipelines can be effectively monitored with remote electronic gear. Monitor outputs can be transmitted and continuously assessed. Even leak detection, shutdown and nearly instantaneous first response could be automated. The semiconductor industry has been doing this for decades in factories crowded with people and hazardous gases.
This unfortunate Bay-area incident should serve as a signal that we must replace and upgrade the antiquated infrastructure in California, as well as other states. While this should be done immediately, it must be done economically and safely, which requires improved oversight.
Glew Engineering Consulting is composed of professionals with strong expertise in gas handling, power generation, boiler & pressure vessels, and fiber optics, as well as materials, mechanical, electrical, signal processing, finite element analysis (FEA), and computer modeling skills. Glew Engineer Consulting has analyzed fires that caused 10 times more property damage than the unfortunate incident described above. Call today to partner with the Glew team—or to discover how our technical knowledge can enhance the safety of your utility or power project.