PG&E denies using ‘junked’ pipe in natural gas lines

by Steve Johnson, San Jose Mercury News

Documents made public Monday show that PG&E moved salvaged pipe in and around the South Bay and Peninsula over the years, but the company insisted that it didn’t reuse "scrap" or "junk," as claimed by state regulators.

In a separate matter, PG&E asked state regulators to let it return the pressure levels on one Peninsula gas line and two connecting lines. Although the pressure levels were lowered as a precaution after the San Bruno disaster, PG&E said it is almost done rechecking the pipes and that it needs the additional gas pressure to meet the demand for gas in the winter.

The issue of PG&E’s "historic reuse of salvaged or junked transmission pipe" was initially raised in an Oct. 19 letter by California Public Utilities Commission lawyers investigating the San Bruno blast. In response, the utility on Monday made public more than 80 documents that it said had been the basis of the commission’s claim.

"PG&E has thoroughly reviewed and analyzed all of the documents cited by the CPUC’s legal division and has concluded that they do not raise public safety concerns," said the utility’s spokesman Brian Swanson.

In several cases, the documents refer to pipe being "junked." But in no case was that pipe reused, Swanson said.

"The junked pipe is recyclable material that has exhausted its useful life and no longer has use within the gas pipeline system," he said, adding that in every case it was "disposed of as scrap metal."

CPUC officials could not be reached for comment. But the agency is scheduled to discuss the matter with PG&E at a meeting Tuesday in San Francisco.

The documents mentioned salvaged pipe’s having been removed from or installed in various locations years ago, including in San Bruno, Milpitas, Redwood City, Palo Alto and the Morgan Hill area. They were cited in the CPUC’s letter as raising questions about "the future safety of California’s entire gas infrastructure."

The lawyers said the documents they found in a PG&E database demonstrate that the utility used "poor or marginal welds" in line 132, the transmission pipe that ruptured in San Bruno. "Moreover," they added, "we believe that PG&E cannot accurately certify that no other reused and/or deficient transmission pipe remains in its service."

The burst section of pipeline — which was made from a series of small-pipe sections of uncertain origin — had been installed in 1956 when the line was moved to make way for a subdivision.

In a formal response filed Oct. 20, PG&E acknowledged using salvaged pipe in some cases, but only after reconditioning the pipe so it would be safe.

"The reuse of salvaged pipe was a common practice throughout the industry at least through the 1950s," the company said, adding that the pipe would be cleaned and inspected before being put back into service.

It, however, disputed the claim that it has ever installed scrapped or junked pipe in its system.

It was unclear from many of the documents made public Monday how much salvaged pipe was reused in the Bay Area. Nonetheless, the company said it is addressing concerns about reused pipe and flawed welds by subjecting its older gas lines to water pressure tests and other measures.

PGE on Monday also appealed to the CPUC to let it restore the pressure on line 101 — which runs up the Peninsula from Milpitas — and lines 132A and 147, short lines that connect 132 and 101 near Mountain View and San Carlos.

If it isn’t allowed to do that, "PG&E faces potentially significant operational and customer impacts," the company said in a regulatory filing. Although last winter was relatively mild, reducing the need for gas, it added, "We cannot count on being similarly lucky this coming winter."