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Transportation Secretary Tours San Bruno Blast Site

SAN BRUNO (CBS / AP) -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and a team of federal officials toured the San Bruno neighborhood torched last fall in a gas-fueled inferno and discuss safety reforms for the natural gas industry.

LaHood joined U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration head Cynthia Quarterman on Thursday to walk through the site of the September explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight, injured dozens and destroyed 38 homes in a tower of flames.

KCBS' Chris Filippi Reports:

Even as federal investigators work to determine a cause, the U.S. Department of Justice has begun looking into the blast. Numerous state and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies are pursuing their own investigations into what led up to the pipeline rupture.

LaHood told The Associated Press his department was designing national reforms to be released by summer's end that will likely strengthen oversight of pipeline companies, increase penalties for violations and place more scrutiny on the money utilities are given to fix or replace aging pipes coursing through urban areas. Recent pipeline accidents in San Bruno, Allentown, Pa., and Marshall, Mich., have given his staff new urgency in their efforts to improve pipeline safety, he said.

>>Photo Gallery: San Bruno Pipeline Explosion

"I wanted to take a look at this issue at a much broader scale because of the patchwork of authority involved with so many different agencies around the country," LaHood said. "When you see the enforcement that comes out this summer it will be the strongest you have ever seen."

Several residents of the quiet neighborhood overlooking the San Francisco Bay have started rebuilding their homes on the bare lots where their old houses once stood. But eight months after the blast, many remain anxious for investigators to determine a cause, and indignant that the state has yet to fine the pipeline's owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., for the accident.

Evalyn Palacio, who lives two blocks up from the crater where segments of the ruptured transmission line are still visible, said she wished reforms would come more quickly. Though grass now covers the scars left by the explosion, she said the neighborhood doesn't feel complete without the destroyed homes.

"We're OK, but it's still kind of sad because you look down and there's really no houses down the hill," she said, as construction crews repaired her front steps. "I don't think we'll feel complete for a long time."

Later in the day, officials visited with PG&E officials at a pipeline replacement job on the streets of San Francisco.

Chris Johns, the company's president, met with LaHood and other federal and state authorities to talk over the utility's program to replace old cast-iron and steel pipes with materials that won't corrode and can withstand earthquakes.

Speier continues to press the company about its past investments on safety upgrades, after a recent California Public Utilities Commission audit found that PG&E spent $183 million less than it was authorized to replace aging pipelines from 1987 to 1999.

"All they've said is they said they do not know what happened to the money which is astonishing," Speier said. "PG&E can't explain specifically what safety programs it was used for, which really shows us that the auditing and oversight by the CPUC is a problem."

The commission is in the middle of several proceedings related to San Bruno, including one that could fine PG&E up to $6 million for poor record keeping.

Last week, a state administrative judge issued a proposal that would require California utilities to submit plans for testing or replacing all untested segments of the state's high-pressure gas transmission system — like the line that exploded last year.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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