PG&E’s pipeline maintenance should be more thoroughly scrutinized, advocates say

by Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times

The flaws in PG&E’s high-pressure gas lines that led to the catastrophic explosion in San Bruno in 2010 may lurk elsewhere, and regulators should therefore launch a comprehensive review of the company’s pipeline maintenance, consumer advocates argued in regulatory filings Tuesday.

The Utility Reform Network said such a review should come on top of similar reviews of other aspects of PG&E’s pipeline safety programs.

Tuesday was the deadline for outside parties to submit testimony in a California Public Utilities Commission investigation launched early this year into whether PG&E violated laws that led to the September 2010 explosion that killed eight people, injured many more and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes.

"TURN is urging the CPUC immediately investigate PG&E’s past maintenance to see if the same violations of federal integrity management standards that existed on line 132 exist elsewhere," said Marcel Hawiger, a staff attorney at TURN. "The CPUC should hold PG&E accountable for its past failures by making the company pay to correct any violations out of profits, rather than forcing ratepayers to foot the bill."

Large fines possible

Regulators say their investigation, which is scheduled to be complete early next year, could result in very large fines against PG&E.

The company says that since the explosion it has changed course and now puts a much greater emphasis on safety.

"We’ve brought in new leadership to overhaul our operations," said PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer. "We’re moving forward to make our system as safe as it can be."

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said in testimony filed on behalf of his city that the tragic explosion was the result of "gross human errors made 54 years ago, compounded by subsequent mistakes which allowed defective welds to remain but completely undetected by PG&E."

Ruane also faulted regulators, saying the PUC has been too cozy with the utilities it regulates.

Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper disputed that.

"Although the tragedy in San Bruno has taught us some tough lessons about pipeline safety and risk assessment, the CPUC vigorously enforces state and federal regulations and since 1999 has levied more than $560 million in fines and restitution across the utilities it regulates," Prosper said in an email.

Meanwhile, a consultant to the city of San Francisco filed detailed arguments that PG&E failed to aggressively tackle potential safety problems.

Leak blamed on weld

Among the evidence he cited was a recently filed report of lab tests on a leaky PG&E pipeline.

The lab report augments a document PG&E filed last year and confirms that a leak discovered in 1988 nine miles south of the site of the 2010 explosion was probably due to a faulty weld. That leak was blamed on a faulty pipe seam during a federal investigation into the explosion last year and widely reported.

The lab test said that although it could not pinpoint the leak, it likely came from poor quality welds done when the pipe was fabricated, indicating that PG&E should have done more aggressive testing and investigation into whether similarly faulty welds were elsewhere in the pipeline system, San Francisco consultant John Gawronski said in written testimony.

PG&E’s Eisenhauer countered that the test results do not definitively isolate the source of the 1988 leak to the longitudinal weld — implying that the leak could have come from "girth" welds that connect two segments of pipe together — and added that despite problems with its pipelines uncovered after the explosion, the utility has reduced pressure and moved to ensure its pipelines are now safe.