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FEMA rejects disaster aid for Calif gas line blast

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JULIANA BARBASSA | September 28, 2010 07:16 PM EST | AP

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SAN FRANCISCO — Federal emergency officials have turned down the state's request for millions in federal disaster aid for the gas pipeline explosion that consumed a Northern California neighborhood earlier this month. The death toll rose to eight Tuesday.

The San Mateo County coroner's office confirmed James Emil Franco, 58, died Monday morning at a San Francisco hospital. An autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday to determine cause of death.

Franco rented a second-floor room in Jose Alvarado's home, and the two had developed a bond, the homeowner told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"We took on a father-and-son relationship," Alvarado said to the newspaper. "He was a part of our family."

Franco was in his room during the Sept. 9 blast. Alvarado helped him escape, but the older man suffered severe burns and had to be taken to San Francisco General Hospital's intensive care unit, Alvarado told the Chronicle. Later he was transferred to the Medical Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

The house was one of 37 destroyed in the explosion and the fire that followed. Alvarado's home was down the block from the site of the blast. He was not hurt, but dozens were injured.

California officials requested federal disaster aid to help victims, but said Tuesday the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned them down Friday.

FEMA determined that state and local governments, along with the utility that owns the ruptured pipeline, could cover the cost of recovery on their own, said spokesman Brad Carroll.

"I think we're going to appeal it and meet with the FEMA director tomorrow ... to make the case," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough. "San Bruno shouldn't be left with a second disaster. While FEMA sees deep pockets of PG&E, FEMA should at least be a backstop if deep pockets are not there."

However, FEMA will reimburse California for up to 75 percent of the firefighting expenses connected to the blast.

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said he planned to meet with federal officials Tuesday to request additional funds. The governor's office is weighing whether to appeal the decision within the next 30 days.

In Washington, federal investigators said laboratory tests on segments of pipeline, which they hope will shed light on the cause, were scheduled to begin later this week.

The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed it was looking into a brief equipment failure that occurred miles away from the blast site as a possible contributing factor.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crews were working on a power supply system in Milpitas, 30 miles from the blast site, hours before the explosion. The system apparently lost power for a time, which could have hindered in their monitoring of the pipe's pressure.

Experts say the system's failure could have affected PG&E's ability to monitor and regulate pressure in the 46-mile pipeline that ran through San Bruno.

The NTSB said the failure is one of many leads it is following. PG&E would not comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

"Until (information gathering) is completed and data analyzed, no conclusions can be drawn about the cause of the leak and subsequent explosion," NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said.

Speier, who has discussed the investigation with NTSB officials, said when the pipeline failed it was running at a pressure of 386 pounds per square inch – 11 pounds more than PG&E normally allows.

This surge in pressure, albeit small, would not create a rupture itself, but it was strong enough to increase the size of an existing rupture or failure, said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Normally there's gas pressure surging in the pipeline," Bea said. "So it seems strange that a surge of 11 psi would precipitate a failure. It wouldn't cause it but it could worsen it if the failure existed."

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Associated Press writers Garance Burke in Fresno, Calif. and Jason Dearen in San Francisco contributed to this report.