Dangerous delays

Four years after the San Bruno disaster, PG&E still isn't fixing its potentially faulty natural gas pipelines on schedule

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A 2010 explosion in San Bruno prompted state regulators to order PG&E to survey all its California natural gas pipelines
PHOTO BY JEFF CHIU

rebecca@sfbg.com

Since we at the Bay Guardian published a story flagging Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s odd behavior of stonewalling a developer who had basic questions about a high-pressure gas pipeline running beneath his Bernal Heights building lot (see "Bernal blows up," May 20), we've heard from others concerned about the company's practices regarding safety.

PG&E has undertaken a massive pipeline improvement project to correct the underlying problems that led to a disastrous 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, which destroyed a neighborhood, killed eight people, and injured 58 others.

But the repairs have been complicated by a number of factors, including inaccuracies in records that provide a foundation for the whole undertaking. Meanwhile, a fascinating document obtained by the Bay Guardian raises troubling questions about whether state regulators are taking seriously PG&E's shortcomings in this endeavor.

Established in 1905, PG&E is California's largest utility company. It wields tremendous political influence, particularly in San Francisco, where it's headquartered. But the utility giant has been in hot water lately. It was indicted by federal authorities on charges of criminal negligence earlier this year in connection with the San Bruno explosion, and may soon face additional charges in a superseding indictment, the company noted in a recent regulatory filing.

PG&E's safety upgrade project, known as the Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan, was launched to address the underlying problems that led to the unanticipated pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno. That disaster brought the powerful utility under intense scrutiny, exposing a deeper pattern of negligence and sloppy record-keeping. The PSEP was rolled out as a corrective measure, in response to regulatory demands.

 

SHIFTING TARGETS

The detailed PSEP outlined how the utility would go about strength testing, replacing, and retrofitting its vast network of natural gas transmission pipelines, which comprise 6,750 miles traversing the utility's Northern California service territory. The hefty document was submitted for CPUC approval in 2011.

However, things haven't gone exactly as planned. Phase I of this plan was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2014 — but that's now behind schedule, and some of the original targets have been revised.

The Bay Guardian attempted to contact both PG&E and the CPUC for this story, but did not receive responses. However, regulatory filings reveal quite a lot about the company's progress.

A comparison of the work PG&E proposed to complete in 2011, versus what it reported having completed as of March 31, 2014, demonstrates how the massive safety upgrade project has shifted over time.

In a document submitted to the CPUC on May 22, PG&E reported that it had completed 541 miles of strength testing, as compared with 780 miles of strength testing originally proposed to be completed by the end of 2014. PG&E said it had replaced 105 miles of pipeline, as compared with the 186 miles of pipeline replacement it initially said would be done by the end of the year. It also reported installing 141 automated valves — but in 2011, PG&E told regulators that by the end of Phase I, "228 gas shut-off valves will be replaced, automated, and upgraded to enable PG&E to remotely or automatically shut off the flow of gas in the event of a pipe rupture."

In hefty technical documents, PG&E provides reasons for why some of the targets have shifted, often the result of new information coming to light. In a June 6 CPUC filing, PG&E noted that nine scheduled pipeline replacement projects included in Phase I likely would not be completed by the end of the year, as originally planned.