Questions and answers about the NTSB’s role in investigating the PG&E gas explosion and fire in San Bruno:

Why is the National Transportation Safety Board investigating?

Pipelines are considered modes of transportation because a product (natural gas) travels through them.  Therefore, the NTSB investigates pipeline accidents that involve a fatality. 

Will the NTSB hold the wrongdoer accountable?

No.  The NTSB has no power to punish or fine anyone, or to hold anyone accountable.  In fact, the NTSB has no enforcement power at all.  Furthermore, its conclusion about who was at fault for the explosion will be inadmissible in any subsequent lawsuit or other legal proceeding. 

If the NTSB has no power to hold wrongdoers accountable, and its conclusions are inadmissible, then what’s the point?

The only reason the NTSB exists is to study accidents and make safety recommendations like this one.  The hope is that industry will adopt the recommendation and that future accidents will thereby be avoided.  But the NTSB cannot require anyone to implement the recommendations.  It can only make the suggestion.

How reliable are the NTSB’s conclusions about the cause of an accident?

Unfortunately, they are not reliable at all. Generally, the full facts about the cause of an accident come out only during the litigation process.

I write here about the problems with the NTSB’s findings in the context of the NTSB’s specialty, aviation accidents. The NTSB’s findings are not any better in the pipeline context.   For example, here is the NTSB’s report concerning the fatal PG&E gas explosion in Santa Rosa. The NTSB cleared PG&E, blaming a contractor for striking and damaging an underground gas line that later leaked and caused an explosion and fire.  Five years later a jury came to a different conclusion.  It held PG&E liable for the deaths for failing to properly mark on the street the location of the gas line so that the contractor could avoid striking it in the first place.