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San Bruno, CA residents claim they smelled gas in the neighborhood for several weeks before the blast that destroyed several houses, injured at least 50 people, left 4 dead, and several missing.The streets that were once lined with quaint 1960’s homes are covered with ash, leaving only the chimneys amidst the soot-covered 15 acres.

Officials are still trying to determine what caused the gas line to rupture and ignite. There are 2 ½ million miles of pipeline crisscrossing the nation. Experts say that gas lines routinely suffer breakdowns and failures because more than 60% the lines are over 40 years old and lack anticorrosion coatings. Once a high-pressure pipeline fails, anything can trigger a blast. It could be something as common and often used as a cell phone because it is battery-powered.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration is directly responsible for inspecting interstate pipelines. Due to their limited resources (only 100 inspectors), much of the inspecting is left to local utilities. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the local utility company, is checking records of complaints over the past several weeks, but it has been confirmed that no one was working on the line at the time of the explosion. Investigators will analyze the condition of the pipeline and its maintenance history, and research whether the residents had reported gas odors to PG&E.

This is not the first time a deadly explosion occurred on a PG&E gas line. The utility has had 19 significant pipeline incidents since 2002, with one fatality. Then, it 2008 state regulators inspected a leaky PG&E pipeline in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova that had been repaired, and found that the company wasn’t properly training its workers to recognize potentially dangerous leaks. In late July, Enbridge was responsible for an oil spill near Marshall, MI and another last week in a Chicago suburb.

A vast majority of pipelines do not require inspection; only pipelines near natural resources or population centers are subject to mandatory inspection. Of those, only 7 % are near a neighborhood. While utility companies know where pipelines are buried, residents may not. Utilities are required by law to mark pipelines clearly and notify residents about the oil and gas lines running beneath them. That was not the case for residents in San Bruno or Chicago.

It is time to enforce stricter regulations – updating standards for inspections and repairs and for the PHMSA to do onsite inspections rather than relying on local companies. PHMSA needs to improve coordination at the local level and provided inspector training. Although a plan that would increase inspectors and safety regulators has been sent to Congress, it is unlikely that we will see progress any time soon, with Congress in election-year gridlock mode. Even if the plan is implemented, safety experts still wonder if it will be enough.

Base on recent incidents, isn’t it obvious that underground gas and oil pipelines are not as safe as we were led to believe? We, the people, cannot do much about it, but Congress can; they have a duty to protect us. They have neglected pipeline safety for too long. There is no excuse for their failure to pass sensible pipeline safety improvement legislation mandating, at the very least, automated valves, regular inspections, and improved training. Congress is not as concerned about safety as it should be; do we need another explosion before we see action?

So how do you determine if there is a gas leak in your neighborhood? Here are some things to watch for to keep you and your family safe.

Smell: Natural gas is colorless and odorless but utility companies often add an odor to the gas so that leaks can be detected. Typically, it’s a rotten egg smell.

Hear: If you hear a roaring, hissing or whistling sound, it could be a leak.

See: Look for a white cloud or a misty fog. If you notice bubbles in standing water or vegetation that appears dead or seems to be dying for no reason, there might be a natural gas leak.

If you suspect a leak, leave your house immediately. Open windows if there is a faint odor. Avoid anything that could create a spark – this includes lights, appliances, telephone, cellphone, ringing the doorbell, or starting the car. Anything with an electric charge is a deadly risk you want to avoid.

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by a plaintiff involved in pending, personal injury, litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

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