Massive Gas Explosion Raises Safety Questions

A deadly disaster wiped out an entire neighborhood in California Thursday night. Without warning, a natural gas pipeline ruptured, setting off a fire that burned 15 acres and destroyed 38 homes.

The explosion in San Bruno sent shockwaves across the country felt by anyone who uses natural gas.

(Scroll down to watch CBS News Correspondent Dean Reynolds' report)

More than half of the homes in the United States - nearly 60 million - use natural gas. It's drawn from huge ground or offshore North American reserves that contain an estimated 100 times the current U.S. annual gas consumption, CBS News Correspondent Dean Reynolds reports.

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The gas is transmitted from wells through processing plants - where an odor is added to enhance detection - and then distributed by 1,200 local gas utilities to customers nationwide through a delivery system that includes some 1.5 million miles of pipe.

It's quite an achievement, but since 1990 natural gas leaks have been linked to 291 fatalities and almost a billion dollars in property damage, according to the Department of Transportation.

Critics say safety regulation and inspection are not up to snuff.

Federal law requires only 7 percent of the country's natural gas pipelines be inspected. Most residential areas are served by low pressure lines which are not usually marked even though they may lie just inches below ground. Digging by third party contractors could trigger an incident, and there is no law to ensure that building is done at a safe distance from the gas lines.

In Oak Park, Ill., Lt. Scott Dreyer of the local fire department said homeowners should act quickly at the first scent of trouble.

"Your first course of action should be to call the fire department," Dreyer said.

Ordinarily, gas leaks come from hot water heaters, furnaces or stoves. Firefighters use what's called a gas trak that identifies leaks much as a Geiger counter detects radiation.

"If the tick rate increases, it will alarm for us and then we'll be able to detect a leak," Dreyer said.

It's a good safety tool to have, especially when you understand that more than 70 million households and businesses rely on natural gas.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.