PG&E ordered to cut gas pressure 20% below limits
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
February 3, 2011
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. ran four natural-gas transmission system lines well above legal safety levels in recent years and must cut the operating pressure on those pipes, state officials said Wednesday.
Two of the pipes, in the South Bay, are buried under heavily populated areas, the state Public Utilities Commission said. It ordered PG&E to reduce pressure on the lines by 20 percent below their legal limits.
The commission said regulators had discovered the illegal pressure levels as part of the investigation into the gas-pipeline explosion Sept. 9 in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
PG&E admitted late Wednesday that in addition to running the four lines on occasion at far above legal limits, it had intentionally increased the pressure on a dozen transmission lines temporarily and, in eight instances, exceeded maximum levels by just “a few pounds.”
The findings represent the latest blow to the credibility of the utility, which conceded after the San Bruno blast that its records incorrectly showed that the pipe that ruptured had been built without seams. A federal probe into the blast found last month that the San Bruno line had ruptured at a shoddy seam weld that extended only halfway through the pipe wall.
The faulty records raised the possibility that PG&E had been operating the line at a level higher than the pipe could withstand. The state then ordered PG&E and other utilities to produce records for all transmission lines that have not undergone high-pressure testing to back up their safety levels.
PG&E is having to search for its records through hundreds of boxes scattered in 20 offices around Northern and Central California. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, says PG&E’s president told her the utility has been unable to find documentation for 30 percent of its pipeline in and around urban areas.
Lines without verified records might have to be shut down for days and undergo expensive testing using high-pressure water.
The Public Utilities Commission issued its pressure-reduction order for the four transmission system lines Wednesday in a letter to PG&E President Chris Johns, and the utility said it would comply.
Under federal law, pipeline companies can run their lines at 10 percent above the legal maximum for brief periods – hours at most. In a response to the commission, PG&E admitted that pressure had far exceeded even that cap several times on the four lines.
It said pressures can spike “due to a variety of reasons, including equipment failure, liquid contamination or human error.” It did not explain the incidents on the four lines, however, or say whether the levels had spiked accidentally or on purpose.
The lines are:
— A 3 1/2-mile stretch from Milpitas to San Jose and a separate half-mile span in Milpitas. Pressure on both lines exceeded maximum levels on the same three dates in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In last year’s incident, the pressure was 50 percent above the legal limit.
— An 8 1/2-mile section between the Santa Cruz County communities of Watsonville and Aptos Hills, which was run at more than 30 percent above the legal limit on June 12, 2009.
— A 17 3/4-mile stretch from Manteca to Modesto, which was run more than 50 percent above its cap on Dec. 15, 2008.
The Public Utilities Commission’s executive director, Paul Clanon, said in a statement that running a gas line above the legal limit does not automatically incur a risk of failure. But given federal investigators’ questions about PG&E’s flawed data on the San Bruno line, he said, “we are being particularly cautious and ordering the pressure reductions until we can better understand the safest operating pressure on these pipelines.”
PG&E told the commission that it had also identified 16 instances in which it had temporarily exceeded legal pressure limits on local gas distribution lines. In three incidents in two weeks in February 2007, spikes occurred in the gas system in Novato in which caps were exceeded by as much as 60 percent, PG&E said.
The company also said it had exceeded maximum pressure limits eight times when it intentionally boosted gas levels temporarily on 12 transmission lines. Brian Cherry, PG&E’s vice president of regulatory relations, told the commission that the boosts were well within safety margins, but did not explain the basis for the increases. The utility had previously said the pressure boosts were aimed at preserving “operational flexibility.”
The Chronicle has reported that PG&E engaged in a practice of boosting gas levels to their maximum limits every few years and did so twice on the San Bruno line. Several pipeline experts have criticized the practice, saying it could have weakened the San Bruno pipe and made it more prone to failure.
Pipeline safety experts applauded the Public Utilities Commission’s order Wednesday, while critics said it is just proof that the agency has been lax until now in its oversight of the utility.
“This is the right move and in the right direction,” said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant in Redmond, Wash. “If you have done all your homework, you can run them at the legal limit on pressure, but there is no confidence here.”
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he wondered how the commission could have let PG&E run the lines over their legal limits without noticing.
“This is further evidence that the CPUC cannot rely solely on the information provided by PG&E, and it must do a better job of auditing the records and inspecting the PG&E gas transmission system,” Hill said.
It was the second time since the San Bruno disaster that the state commission has ordered PG&E to cut pressure on large gas lines. On Dec. 16, regulators told the utility to run less gas through transmission lines with welds similar to one that failed on the San Bruno pipeline. The utility said two lines in the Bay Area were covered by the order – one running from Oakland to Fremont, and the other from Fremont to Milpitas.
San Bruno pipeline called ‘tip of the iceberg’
Jaxon Van Derbeken and Eric Nalder
San Francisco Chronicle
January 30, 2011
Federal investigators’ findings in the San Bruno pipeline explosion probe suggest that thousands of miles of long-buried and untested natural gas pipelines across the United States are at far greater risk of failure than the industry and government regulators have long maintained, experts say.
“It’s a wake-up call,” Robert Eiber, a pipeline integrity expert with 50 years of experience in the industry, said of the implications of the National Transportation Safety Board’s metallurgical analysis of the line that exploded Sept. 9.
“They need to make sure they don’t have a duplicate situation someplace else,” Eiber said. “If it has not been tested, you need to test it.”
In a detailed report released Jan. 21, the safety board identified a “progressive” crack on a seam running several feet along the San Bruno line as the point where the 30-inch transmission pipe ruptured, causing a fireball that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The crack began at a shoddy weld that extended only halfway through the pipe wall, investigators said.
Although the report did not identify what forces were at work on that crack, Eiber and several other experts interviewed by The Chronicle said that only gas pressure – not outside forces such as earth movement – could account for the way the line failed and for microscopic, telltale markings seen on photographs of the weld.
Each one of those dozen or so marks – ridges and grooves that resemble a zipper – represents an instance in which the weld crack was forced open just a bit wider before it finally gave way.
Two of the marks were most likely caused by instances in 2003 and 2008 in which PG&E intentionally increased gas pressure on the line to what the utility believed was the most the pipe would safely hold, the experts said.
The other marks, however, are probably the result of years of routine pressure shifts – known as low-pressure cycling – that helped the crack to spread, they said.
The gas industry has long asserted that such pressure changes within legally established ranges do not pose a problem for the thousands of miles – perhaps more than 25,000 – of older gas transmission pipelines across the United States that, like the San Bruno line, have never undergone pressure safety testing.
Pressure limits on such lines have safety margins that account for dangers such as bad welds, the industry says. Federal regulations allowing such lines to go untested are predicated on the assumption that as long as the pipes are run below a certain level, weak welds are not at risk of failing.
Independent pipeline experts agreed that the latest federal findings about the San Bruno disaster cast doubt on that assumption.
“Unfortunately, PG&E was the first company to expose a problem like this on a major scale,” said Richard Golomb, a mechanical engineer in San Francisco who spent four decades selling pressure-control equipment to PG&E and other pipeline companies. “I believe we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
The implications for the natural-gas transmission industry are potentially enormous. Any change in federal pipeline inspection rules could require companies to conduct pressure testing that can cost as much as $500,000 per mile, for thousands of miles of pipe.
The cost of fixing the problem “is going to be a huge sum,” Golomb said.
The ominous finding in the metallurgical analysis of the San Bruno pipeline was that a flawed weld put in the ground in 1956 could go undetected and gradually worsen – yet survive for decades before failing and causing a catastrophe.
If it can happen here, experts said, it can happen anywhere.
“PG&E is not the only natural gas company that has this problem,” Golomb said. Every pipeline company in the United States and the world, he said, “could have these same problems.”
Several experts who reviewed the government’s metallurgical report on the San Bruno disaster said there were unmistakable signs that small, ordinary pressure changes over time drove the deadly crack down the pipeline’s seam.
Investigators say the pipe’s pressure was typically kept below 375 pounds per square inch, and PG&E says it never ran the line above its legal maximum set of 400 pounds per square inch. The utility has said it intentionally increased pressure twice to that maximum level, in 2003 and 2008.
Those pressure surges – which the utility defended as “very safe” and necessary to preserve “operational flexibility” – are being investigated as part of the federal probe into what caused the disaster, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said.
At least two of the distinctive marks on the weld are pronounced, said UC Berkeley engineering Professor Robert Bea. He said their width suggests they were caused by PG&E’s 2003 and 2008 surges.
But Bea and other independent experts who examined photographs in the board’s report say they can identify at least 10 other, smaller markings on the weld – each a signature of tiny progress in the depth of the crack on the line.
The welding is “so defective that even what we think are safe operating pressures had been acting to propagate the cracks,” Bea said. “That is what is so scary.”
PG&E’s flawed records
The possibility exists that the vulnerability of the San Bruno line was an isolated case, caused by PG&E’s ignorance of the true characteristics of its pipe.
The National Transportation Safety Board expressed alarm this month that PG&E had wrongly described the pipe as seamless. The fact that the San Bruno section had a seam, and was pieced together in several welded sections, means the line’s true safety level could have been well under 400 pounds per square inch, the agency suggested.
The safety board’s chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, said Wednesday that “decisions regarding inspections, operating pressures and risk management plans (for the San Bruno pipe) were all based on facts that were just plain wrong.”
However, federal regulators also said other pipeline companies could have flawed documentation, and urged operators across the country to produce records for their lines and prove their maximum safety levels were justified.
In California, the state Public Utilities Commission ordered utilities to do so by March 15. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, said PG&E President Chris Johns had told her the utility has been unable to find documentation for 30 percent of its gas transmission system in and around urban areas.
Eiber said the flawed weld on the San Bruno line and its ultimate failure calls into question PG&E’s entire system.
“I cannot imagine anyone putting that piece of pipe in the ground,” Eiber said. “This is a huge flaw. If they are this sloppy, I’d put a big question mark on the whole system.”
PG&E has said it has operated its lines with a large margin of safety, but did not respond last week to questions based on the metallurgical report.
If federal regulators agree that only pressure changes were at work on the weld in San Bruno, that could trigger a “monumental” shift in gas pipeline regulation, said David Howitt, a UC Davis chemical engineering professor who studies pipeline failures.
Howitt said the San Bruno finding suggests that old lines and their flawed welds may be able to hold up for only so long before they start to give way.
‘The fatigue cycle’
“If it is going to start happening, it is going to start happening now or in the next decade, because you are in the fatigue cycle,” Howitt said.
“Now it is a waiting game,” he said. “It is kind of like counting coffins. You are waiting to see if it happens again.”
Howitt said it is still too early to determine the dynamics of the pressure changes in the San Bruno rupture. PG&E records on pressure increases – if the company kept them – will help investigators know just what amount of pressure left its microscopic signature behind.
Rules must change
Bea said the regulatory rules need to be changed, “or else we’ll just expect more repetitions of this experience.”
Federal regulators opted not to force pipeline companies to search for defective welds in the late 1980s after the National Transportation Safety Board issued warnings about a spate of weld failures. The board pushed for an inspection requirement, but regulators issued a voluntary advisory instead.
However, the federal government made it clear back then that pipeline companies should know the location of old welds.
“Most of us operators know where that pipe is, and we keep a closer eye on it,” said Charles Yarbrough, vice president of rates and regulatory affairs for Atmos Pipeline-Texas in Dallas.
The main question now for government regulators is whether to force pipeline companies to conduct more high-pressure water tests on their lines to prove they are free of weld defects such as those exposed in San Bruno.
Utilities avoid the tests because they are extremely expensive – $125,000 to $500,000 per mile of pipe, according to PG&E – and require that a line be taken out of service for at least 10 days.
Under a 1970 federal law, water-pressure testing is done on all new lines when they are installed. But the law allowed lines already in the ground then – including the one in San Bruno – to be assigned pressure levels based on their history and characteristics, and not on any testing.
PG&E says it hasn’t pressure-tested about 20 percent of its pipeline, according to initial estimates submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission. That would translate into more than 1,000 miles of pipe in Northern and Central California.
27,000 miles in U.S.
The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade organization, conducted a survey of its members indicating that about 27,000 miles of gas transmission lines nationwide have never been tested. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration could not provide a total.
The industry insists such lines are safe.
Terry Boss, vice president of the interstate gas association, argued during a federal rule-making process in 2003 that any flaws in old welds could be designated as “stable” if there had been no pressure spikes or leaks on a pipe. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration agreed and did not force companies to pressure-test their older lines.
Boss contended that weld problems would not be worsened by everyday pressure shifts within legal boundaries. He asserted that the most serious threat was from ground forces in an earthquake, landslide or contractor digging.
Boss said last week that his organization and others are still looking into potential outside disturbances that could have affected the San Bruno pipe. He said the markings found where the weld failed could have been the result of such disturbances rather than pressure changes.
A pressure surge doubtless caused the pipe to finally burst, Boss said – investigators say a mechanical failure boosted pressure on the San Bruno line from the normal 375 pounds per square inch to 386 pounds just before the blast – but that whatever weakened the pipe came from the outside. Possibly, he said, the problem was earth movement.
“In the end pressure does it, but (the pipe) has to be in such a weakened state because of other events,” Boss said. He said his group’s studies have consistently found that low-pressure cycling “doesn’t show to be a problem with natural gas pipelines.”
But Eiber, the pipeline integrity expert, is sure that earth movement was not to blame for the San Bruno disaster.
“Earth movement is not going to produce the (forces) that would trigger that crack to occur” on a seam weld, he said.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant in Redmond, Wash., said the San Bruno disaster is likely to change the regulatory landscape.
‘A great concern’
“The assumption that gas transmission lines don’t pressure cycle, I think it is going to look pretty ridiculous,” Kuprewicz said.
Eiber said the lesson of San Bruno is that regulations assuming that weld risk can be discounted over time are flawed.
“It is difficult to anticipate what is out there,” Eiber said. “It’s a great concern. I think it’s going to be a great concern to everybody.”
PG&E can’t find crucial pipeline pressure records
San Francisco Chronicle
January 28, 2011
Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s president told a Bay Area congresswoman that the utility cannot find records that support pressure levels on nearly a third of its natural-gas transmission system in populated areas, the congresswoman said Thursday.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, said utility President Chris Johns reported that PG&E has been unable to produce key manufacturing and installation documents for 30 percent of its pipelines in and around urban areas in Northern and Central California.
The revelation that PG&E had erroneous documents about the pipeline that exploded in San Bruno on Sept. 9, killing eight people, prompted the California Public Utilities Commission to order the state’s utilities to produce reliable records for their gas transmission lines by March 15. If no reliable records can be found, utilities face the prospect of having to shut down a pipeline for days and run expensive tests that use high-pressure water to detect weaknesses.
Speier said she spoke with Johns this week after examining a piece of the ruptured San Bruno pipeline at a laboratory operated by the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington. The agency said last week that the line had failed at a weld that went only halfway through the pipe.
‘Appalled’ by weld
Speier said she was “appalled” by the sloppiness of the weld and was concerned about the possibility there could similar problems elsewhere in PG&E’s system. Johns’ response concerned her more, she said.
“They don’t know what’s underground,” Speier said.
Brian Swanson, a spokesman for PG&E, would neither confirm nor deny Speier’s report of the utility president’s estimate.
“We continue to review and validate our records,” Swanson said. “We still have more work to do to validate the percentage. We will have a final report on March 15.”
Swanson added that “we reaffirmed with Jackie Speier our commitment to do whatever testing our experts determine to ensure the safety of our pipelines.”
Here and there
Richard Clark, head of the Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division, said this month that pipeline records are “scattered about their (PG&E’s) various district and division offices and yards.”
At the time, he estimated that PG&E might have to conduct pressure tests on 400 miles of the 1,800 miles of pipe for which the utility is under orders to produce records. Johns’ reported comments suggest that the number could be more than 500 miles.
High-pressure water tests are considered to be the most reliable way of finding many potential problems with gas pipelines, including weak welds. They are also costly – a PG&E spokesman said the expense can range from $125,000 to $500,000 per mile.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the faulty seam weld that ruptured in the San Bruno explosion was installed when the pipe was manufactured in 1956. PG&E has admitted that because of poor record keeping it didn’t even know the pipe had seam welds.
The pipeline was among the 20 percent of PG&E’s gas-transmission system that has never been subjected to pressure tests, the utility said.
UC Berkeley engineering Professor Bob Bea, who has studied documentation problems with offshore pipelines, said that not having paperwork for nearly a third of its transmission lines would mean PG&E was “staggering around in the dark” while working with explosives.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant in Redmond, Wash., said it would be “really, really sad” if PG&E were missing that much documentation.
“This is stuff that can kill in a heartbeat,” Kuprewicz said. “You don’t lose control of it.”
Speier said PG&E’s record-keeping problems are partly attributable to a failure by regulatory agencies to oversee pipeline companies effectively. She said Congress should rewrite the rules to strengthen oversight by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, “almost starting from square one.”
She cited a Chronicle story on Sunday showing how the agency had considered and rejected numerous proposals seven years ago that experts say could have improved pipeline company record keeping and inspections.
“Their whole philosophy has to change,” Speier said. “They have to be safety first and accommodating of industry second.”
Julia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, declined to comment.
Speier is on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which would consider such a proposal. The committee is controlled by Republicans, who are normally averse to government regulation, but a spokesman for the panel’s chairman, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista (San Diego County), said Speier’s idea might be well-received.
Issa supported the wholesale reorganization of the federal Minerals Management Service after the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, committee spokesman Kurt Bardella said. He said Speier would have a “unique perspective on the problem” and should bring her ideas before the panel.
“If a federal agency is failing to do what it is supposed to do, then we need to examine what is wrong and fix it,” Bardella said.
San Bruno fire: NTSB chair rips PG&E’s records
San Francisco Chronicle
January 27, 2011
Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s record-keeping blunders leading up to the San Bruno natural-gas explosion indicate the need for “a new perspective on safety culture” throughout the industry, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.
Deborah Hersman described how her investigators learned shortly after the 30-inch transmission pipeline exploded Sept. 9 that PG&E had no clue about the line’s characteristics, and said that to this day the company has been unable to find basic records on the manufacture and 1956 installation of the pipe. By law, companies are supposed to retain such documentation and use it to check for potential threats to pipelines.
“In the years since the pipe was put into service, decisions regarding inspections, operating pressures and risk management plans were all based on facts that were just plain wrong,” Hersman said in a speech in Washington to the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board, a gathering of thousands of policymakers, researchers, industry officials and academicians.
PG&E’s key mistake was its belief that the pipe had been built without seams. In fact, the pipe had been cobbled together from several pieces and had a poorly welded longitudinal seam that finally ruptured, the safety board said last week.
Taking aim at PG&E
The tone of Hersman’s comments indicated that the agency could come down hard on PG&E when it issues its final report on the explosion and fire that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The NTSB, however, has no regulatory authority over the utility.
“Our investigators were told that the pipe involved in the explosion was a seamless, factory-manufactured pipe,” Hersman said. “But even a layperson could see the patchwork of welds marking the pipe.”
She added, “This misinformation was not a minor record-keeping oversight.”
PG&E “has not been able to produce documentation on the origins of the pipe, the installation of the pipe, or the early inspection of the pipe,” Hersman said.
“But no one realized this until after the pipeline exploded,” she said. “And then it was just too late.”
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said in response, “We are concerned about the issue with our records and take it very seriously.”
Call for new attitude
Hersman cited the San Bruno disaster and three non-pipeline accidents as examples of why those who build, operate and regulate systems such as pipeline networks should “take away a new perspective on safety culture, record keeping and aging infrastructure.”
“For operators, there’s the complex challenge of building a positive safety culture. For designers and builders, there’s a simple lesson in keeping good records,” said Hersman, a congressional staffer before she joined the safety board in 2004.
Hersman noted that PG&E had never pressure-tested the San Bruno line because the pipe was “grandfathered” – or exempted – in 1970 when the federal government began requiring such tests for new pipelines.
Pressure tests are considered the best way to detect problem welds. PG&E inspected the San Bruno line in 2009 with an inspection technique called direct assessment that was well-suited for detecting corrosion but not for finding flawed welds.
Hersman also alluded to the safety board’s preference for hydrostatic pressure tests, in which pipelines are sealed at two ends and subjected to high-pressure water. Many PG&E pipelines were tested with gas or air, a procedure that some experts consider to be less reliable than hydrostatic because of the possibility that utilities were wary of boosting the gas to sufficiently high levels.
The California Public Utilities Commission has been closely watching the federal agency’s wording on the issue. The state agency is set to decide by mid-March whether it will accept PG&E records of gas tests in addition to water-pressure tests as proof that the company’s transmission lines are safe.
Because of the San Bruno accident and PG&E’s record-keeping fiasco, all natural gas utilities in the state have been ordered to search their files to prove that their pipes’ operating levels are justified. They will have to conduct expensive and time-consuming pressure tests on lines where there is no such proof.
Like the San Bruno line, about 20 percent of PG&E’s pipelines were grandfathered under the 1970 regulations and have never been pressure tested using any method. Forty-two percent have never been tested with high-pressure water.
PG&E’s Molica said the utility has been “undertaking an intensive review of our pipeline records, scrutinizing and verifying thousands of documents to confirm the quality of our data.”
Lenient regulation let PG&E do faulty inspections
San Francisco Chronicle
January 23, 2011
Federal regulators missed at least two chances before the deadly explosion in San Bruno to force Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and other utilities to collect more accurate information on their gas pipes and use better inspection techniques, a Chronicle investigation has found.
A permissive regulatory system allowed PG&E to use inaccurate information to establish the San Bruno pipeline’s operating pressure and to rely on an inspection technique inappropriate for finding key weaknesses in the pipe, records show.
The issue of reliability of pipeline records is looming large in the investigation of the Sept. 9 explosion, as PG&E has admitted its documents regarding the San Bruno pipe were inaccurate.
Only after eight people were killed and 38 homes were destroyed did federal and state regulators send PG&E and other pipeline companies scrambling through scattered and disorganized paper records to correct errors.
In November, two months after the explosion, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration finally enacted a rule that will force companies to report what inspection techniques they are using on pipelines – an idea the agency first considered in 2003 and then rejected.
It was one of several reporting requirements that the federal government nixed after industry groups objected, records show.
Experts said federal regulators should have issued such requirements years ago, saying they would have forced companies to dig deeper into their records and lessened the chances of a San Bruno-style disaster.
“Reporting something as straightforward as what kinds of tests you are doing, that’s not a huge burden,” said David Howitt, a chemical engineering professor at UC Davis who specializes in material and forensic science.
“There were no regulations,” said James Hall, who from 1994 to 2001 was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency investigating the San Bruno explosion. “There has to be a strict regulation in place for records. The truth of the matter is a lot of these companies don’t have records.”
But 2003 wasn’t the only time that federal regulators considered better reporting requirements. The issue came up again after 2005, during a rule-making process that wasn’t completed for five years.
A trade organization representing PG&E vehemently opposed the reporting provision, criticizing it in 2009 as “unreasonable, illogical and of limited value.” The requirement, finally approved in November, won’t be imposed until this year.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant in Redmond, Wash., who has long favored the reporting requirement, said more industry transparency would have had a cascading effect, compelling companies to keep better records so they could justify their inspections.
Another benefit, he said, would have been weeding out pipeline operators who “may be perverting the system.”
“You deregulate anybody, and people get sloppier,” Howitt said. “If there is a regulation, it keeps everybody honest.”
Kirk Johnson, PG&E vice president for pipeline operations, said his company keeps a detailed pipeline inspection plan in its headquarters and “the regulators have the right to see it anytime they want.”
He rejected the idea that stricter reporting requirements would have lessened the chances of a pipeline explosion. “I don’t think it has any play in what happened in San Bruno,” Johnson said.
Julia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said her agency decided in 2003 that it was better for regulators to conduct thorough audits of company records than to require companies to report regularly what they were doing and why.
But California regulators now admit that their audits of PG&E were infrequent and didn’t spot many potential problems.
The federal agency appeared to recognize the shortcomings of its approach in November, when it issued the rule requiring companies to report which inspection techniques they were using.
The regulation, said the pipeline office, was needed to help the government “understand the state of pipeline safety” and specifically to help it learn “the effectiveness and extent of use” of each inspection technique.
The National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t determined the cause of the San Bruno explosion, but it is looking into PG&E’s lack of awareness that its half-century-old pipe was manufactured with a seam weld. There also are questions about whether the utility used proper tests and documentation to establish the maximum safe operating pressure of the pipe.
The agency issued a report Friday that showed the rupture in the San Bruno pipe began at a seam weld that had not been properly done. The weld didn’t go all the way through the pipe.
The federal rules governing pipeline inspections were written in 2003 to implement a law passed by Congress requiring inspections of natural gas pipelines in populated areas. Other proposals the federal pipeline office rejected included:
— A requirement that companies submit inspection records directly to regulators rather than producing scant statistics, without details.
— A requirement that regulators be provided with real-time access to gas company inspection records via a computer link.
— A requirement that companies justify in writing their use of a new inspection technique known as direct assessment, which involves records checks and exterior spot checks of a pipeline rather than an examination of its interior.
— A requirement that once in a pipeline’s lifetime the gas company pressure-test it – a procedure usually done by running water through a line to discover defective welds and other manufacturing defects.
Valentine, the spokeswoman for the federal pipeline office, said regulators had decided to require companies to report only four performance measures because they were the “most important” indicators of their progress in the pipeline inspection program.
Those were the number of miles of pipeline the companies operated in populated areas, the number of miles they had inspected, and the number of gas leaks or other failures they had found and repaired or scheduled for repair.
Gas companies communicate other information to the federal government, such as when they ask the agency for guidance, but the key is what they are required to report.
The system that federal regulators created allowed PG&E to make major decisions on its own, including the analysis of which threats its pipelines faced.
PG&E relied on one technique, direct assessment, for three-fourths of its inspections, including the one it did on the San Bruno line in November 2009. Direct assessment is authorized only for detecting corrosion and stress corrosion cracking because it is an exterior spot check, not an interior inspection.
The other two inspection techniques the company could have used are pressure tests with water and the “smart pig,” a torpedo-shaped device bristling with electronic sensors that is sent down the inside of a pipeline. Both are superior for finding hazards inside a pipeline and are the only techniques for finding manufacturing defects such as bad welds.
PG&E would have been forced to use pressure tests or pigs had it determined its pipes were at risk because of manufacturing defects, not simply corrosion that develops over time. But PG&E testimony during the federal rule making showed it wanted to avoid extensive use of either inspection technique because pressure tests disrupt service and the company’s old pipelines required expensive retrofitting to accommodate pigs.
The regulatory system that the federal government put in place in 2003 relied on effective auditing to ensure pipeline operators are following the law, Valentine said. But audits done by the California Public Utilities Commission on behalf of the federal government proved to be inadequate.
The state agency conducted only two audits of PG&E’s pipeline inspection program, in 2005 and 2010, and the first one was just a “practice audit,” said Richard Clark, director of the consumer protection and safety division for the commission.
“We’d like to be in a position to audit it more frequently than that,” he said.
Clark blamed staffing problems for the state agency’s failure to monitor PG&E more frequently, although a supervisor in the commission’s auditing branch, Mike Robertson, said in an interview shortly after the San Bruno explosion that the agency’s inspection staff was “sufficient” to do the job.
Clark said the state agency should have dug more deeply. “We had the ability to go beyond” the federal rules, he said, but “didn’t have staffing to do it.”
PG&E’s Johnson, however, said the 2010 audit was “significant” and “very extensive.”
In the two audits they did perform, state investigators found that PG&E had poor record keeping and problems with identifying threats to its gas pipes. But Clark said a “spot check” of records wasn’t enough to detect what was really going on.
“There was no reason for us to suspect that PG&E’s records were inaccurate,” he said.
PG&E has since admitted that because of a “discrepancy in our records,” it didn’t know the San Bruno pipe was manufactured with a seam weld.
Welds on pipes older than four decades, like the San Bruno line, are particularly vulnerable to failures because of manufacturing techniques used back then. Two-thirds of PG&E’s pipes fall into that age category.
Yet PG&E promoted direct assessment as a primary inspection technique on old pipes in 2003, despite its inadequacy for spotting manufacturing defects. Had federal regulators kept track of inspection techniques that companies used, they could have discovered that PG&E relied on the technique more than many other pipeline operators around the country.
Bob Bea, a UC Berkeley engineering professor who has studied disasters for decades, said the type of regulatory system that the federal government created – relying largely on companies to police themselves – is popular, but it is often misapplied by inexperienced regulators.
“They start out with hubris, then arrogance, then ignorance, then indolence or laziness,” Bea said. “They don’t know quite how to do it.”
The gas industry opposed reporting requirements seven years ago in part over concern that the general public or even terrorists could acquire sensitive pipeline information by requesting it under liberal state freedom of information laws – although in California’s case, the state limits what can be released about pipelines.
The American Gas Association, a trade group representing PG&E and other gas distribution companies, also expressed concern that data would be unfairly used to compare companies that face different challenges.
When the federal pipeline agency was again considering the requirement to report inspection techniques in 2009, association Vice President Christina Sames called the idea “unreasonable, illogical and of limited value.”
Federal regulators were tougher on companies that operate liquid pipelines like crude oil. Those firms, for example, must report how many miles of their pipelines contain certain kinds of pre-1970 welds that are vulnerable to failure. Gas companies don’t have to.
Gas companies must report the age of their lines, but federal data show that nationwide, 4,850 miles are listed as age “unknown.”
Valentine said that’s a “very small number” compared with a total inventory of 296,300 miles of pipe. But others said the federal agency shouldn’t be so sanguine.
“What they are saying – in a de facto way – is that they don’t have the construction records,” said Kuprewicz, the pipeline safety consultant.
Fahmy Haggag, a Tennessee engineer who tests pipeline steel, said several companies have revealed in confidence they lack documentation on hundreds of miles of their pipelines. Haggag said that when he asked federal regulators more than a year ago for statistics on undocumented pipelines, he was told the government doesn’t keep track of them.
“If you have no documentation, how can you say whether there is a seam weld or no seam weld?” he asked.
In the past month, urgent advisories issued by the National Transportation Safety Board and the federal pipeline safety office called on companies to get their records in order. Neither agency seems confident in the system.
“Some operators are not sufficiently aware of their pipeline attributes, nor are they adequately or consistently assessing threats and risks,” Jeffrey Wiese of the federal pipeline agency wrote in an advisory bulletin Jan. 4.
At PG&E, pipeline records are scattered among district offices and maintenance yards. The utility is hunting for them. Companies nationwide have been asked to do the same.
Bret Lane, field services vice president of Southern California Gas Co., said his company faces a “massive conversion” of paper records to databases as it modernizes and responds to requirements imposed after San Bruno.
“We are starting to see some of the lessons probably learned out of San Bruno,” Lane said.
NTSB report cites faulty weld on San Bruno pipe
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
January 22, 2011
An inferior weld on the seam of the San Bruno gas pipeline was overstressed to the breaking point at the time of the line’s deadly explosion, according to a detailed scientific analysis released Friday by federal transportation safety officials.
The metallurgical report shed new light on the Sept. 9 blast that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, identifying for the first time a particular seam weld as the site of the rupture. It found that the weld was half as thick as it should have been.
Experts say such an obvious flaw would have been exposed during the kind of rigorous high-pressure water testing inspections that the utility had long ruled out as expensive and burdensome.
The incomplete weld, experts say, was so inferior as to be substandard even at the time of the pipe’s installation in 1956. Its vulnerability casts further doubt on the validity of the already-questioned pressure peak level, set by PG&E at 400 pounds per square inch, on the line.
PG&E’s records – shown by investigators to be in error – indicated that the line was seamless, when in fact the San Bruno site was part of a cobbled assortment of potentially inferior 4-foot-long seamed pipes of apparently unknown origin. Records for hundreds of miles of pipelines elsewhere in PG&E’s system are now under scrutiny and regulators might compel the use of high-pressure water testing to seek out similar weld flaws.
The problem seam weld in San Bruno, Friday’s National Transportation Safety Board report noted, developed a crack “consistent with ductile overstress from the root of the weld.” Ductile refers to the action of pulling, experts say, and the force eventually ripped apart the line at the seam at a time when pressure surged to 386 pounds per square inch. The pressure surged because of a malfunction of the pipeline system’s power source before the San Bruno explosion.
The report noted that there were several circumferential, or girth, welds, and all of them had similar flaws. One of them also failed in the accident, but the report did not specify the cause of the “overstress” on those welds. Seam welds run along the length of the pipes.
UC Berkeley engineering Professor Robert Bea, reviewing the government’s report for The Chronicle, concluded that the seam weld was so weak on the 3/8-inch-thick pipe that a disaster could have occurred at any time. He pointed to photos in the report as evidence that pressure surges over time – including two pressure spikes PG&E ran in 2003 and 2008 as reported in The Chronicle – could have accelerated cracking.
“Something is causing the crack to propagate – that may be a change in pressure,” Bea said. “When the metal gets so thin, just a little bit of stress is enough to exceed the ability of the steel to withstand the pressure.
“It starts to stretch, like when you are blowing up a balloon – at some point you stretch it to the point it pops. That is what likely happened here.”
He noted that the problem could be traced to when the line was installed in 1956. “It’s not bad welding, it’s horrible welding,” said Bea, a trained welder.
Based on what he knew of the welds from reading the report, he said, the legal maximum pressure on the line should have been “zero.”
But Terry Boss, vice president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, stressed that the report “doesn’t tell the whole story.”
He noted that it does not make any conclusions about why the weld failed, whether pressure surges had weakened it over time or whether “there were outside forces” that caused the stress on the line and the rupture.
Meanwhile, PG&E President Chris Johns issued a statement Friday calling the report “another important step” and praising the NTSB’s “meticulous and painstaking work” in the investigation.
He pointed to the 20 percent reduction in pressure now in place on lines similar to the one in San Bruno as “a measure that builds a significant additional margin of safety into our current operating conditions.”
The report’s release followed recent revelations that PG&E had used faulty records to justify the San Bruno pipeline’s legal maximum level of 400 pounds per square inch, and that it had been spiking the line to that now dubious level every five years. Ten other unidentified lines have been similarly spiked since 2003.
Bea and other experts say those spikes could have stressed any flaws over time, making them more vulnerable to failure when the pressure surged because of equipment malfunction to 386 pounds per square inch on Sept. 9. They pointed to the analysis released Friday as possibly making that case.
The utility, however, has defended the increases as preserving “operational flexibility” but announced it was putting them on hold pending the outcome of the federal investigation of the San Bruno rupture.
One conclusion that experts said is inescapable about the report: Only a high-pressure water, or hydrostatic, test would have been able to spot the welding flaws now being pointed to as the probable root of the blast. The utility had insisted such tests were impractical.
“A proper hydro test would probably have discovered this,” said Richard Kuprewicz, a Redmond, Wash., pipeline safety expert. “No doubt about it.”
He said the report underscores the need to know what kind of problems exist in lines underground. “This thing lasted for 50 years,” he said. “But if you have seam welds, you don’t spike the pressure, you keep them under control.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, said Friday that the report was very disturbing and gave strong indications that the explosion was preventable.
“The welds being inadequate by as much as 50 percent is a huge defect,” she said. “The question is, at how many other locations along this system was this kind of sloppy and dangerous workmanship going on?
“What this report tells us, in the most tragic of terms, is that had PG&E done the proper kind of inspection (at the San Bruno site), they would have seen the flaws in the weld and they could have repaired them.”
PG&E spiked 11 lines to legal limits since 2003
Jaxon Van Derbeken and Eric Nalder
San Francisco Chronicle
January 16, 2011
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been temporarily spiking pressure on major gas transmission lines since 2003, pushing levels to the legal limits on 10 lines in addition to the San Bruno pipeline that exploded less than two years after the last such surge, The Chronicle has learned.
Experts expressed concern that PG&E’s intentional surge on the San Bruno pipe, as reported in The Chronicle last week, could have weakened the line before an accidental spike on Sept. 9 coincided with a fireball that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. They said the same danger exists on the 10 other transmission lines where PG&E now admits it pushed pressures beyond the levels at which the lines usually ran.
That danger is underscored by questions about whether PG&E’s records for the 10 transmission lines are accurate or, as in the case of San Bruno, fail to show their true characteristics. Erroneous records could have led the utility to set maximum pressure levels higher than what the pipes could actually withstand.
San Bruno’s representative in the House, Jackie Speier, denounced PG&E’s practice as “Russian roulette” and said prosecutors have begun a “civil and criminal review” of events leading up to the San Bruno explosion.
“It’s a gross irresponsibility to place ratepayers at that kind of risk,” said Speier, D-Hillsborough. “This is all being taken very seriously.”
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe confirmed that prosecutors were looking at the circumstances surrounding the San Bruno disaster.
“We are looking at it with our eyes open to all possibilities,” he said. “It could be civil or criminal, but at this stage it is too early to reach any conclusion.”
PG&E says the increases were a “very safe” practice intended to preserve its “operational flexibility.” But it announced last week that it had suspended the practice in light of the federal investigation into what caused the San Bruno explosion.
The utility acknowledged in response to a Chronicle query that it had at times elevated the pressure on the 10 lines in addition to the San Bruno pipe. But it would not identify the locations of those 10 lines.
Brian Swanson, a spokesman for the utility, said PG&E is still doing a “very thorough examination of records” to determine the circumstances and location of each of the pressure increases.
“We’re continuing to verify how many times and when and which segments were involved,” Swanson said. “We’re still verifying records on all our other lines.”
PG&E did say it had increased the pressure on the 11 lines a total of a dozen times since 2003, and that two of those were on the San Bruno line – the December 2008 spike reported by The Chronicle last week, and an additional surge in December 2003, shortly after a federal inspection law took effect that was based on pipelines’ pressure caps.
Setting a cap
That 2002 law dictated how any pipeline designated as running under a “high-consequence area” – generally, a populated region – would be regulated, based in part on the peak pressure level at which it was run in the previous five years.
Once that five-year peak level was set for older lines that have not undergone rigorous, time-consuming and expensive water-pressure testing – which is the case for much of PG&E’s urbanized network in Northern and Central California – the law requires those tests if a pipeline’s pressure ever spikes above that level.
In the case of the 11 lines, the utility has said, their five-year peaks were normally lower than their legal maximum pressures because they were connected to weaker lines with lower caps.
As a result, some critics suspect, PG&E began pinching off the weaker lines for short stretches and spiking pressure on 11 lines to the legal limit, to establish a higher inspection threshold and avoid the need for the rigorous water-pressure tests should an accidental surge occur.
San Bruno spikes
On the San Bruno line, PG&E spiked the gas pressure to the legal maximum of 400 pounds per square inch in December 2003 – above the 375 pounds at which the line normally ran – then declared the line as being in a high-consequence area in 2004.
It spiked the pressure again to 400 pounds in 2008. When the pipeline exploded on Sept. 9, the pressure had surged to 386 pounds because of a malfunction, federal investigators found.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant in Redmond, Wash., said the utility’s practice was “crazy.”
“It’s so backward in its thinking – you wouldn’t think anybody would be that reckless,” he said. “The overall intent of the (federal inspection) program was, you are not supposed to look for loopholes.”
James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a pipeline safety advocate, said PG&E’s practices amounted to “gaming the system.”
“It’s difficult when the rule-making is impacted by the devious and the safety programs are run by the devious,” Hall said. “Now we have seen the consequences.”
Robert Eiber, a pipeline integrity consultant and researcher in Columbus, Ohio, said, “I have never heard anything like this. … They were foolish to have done it.”
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration issued a statement Friday related to PG&E’s practice that said, “In some cases, raising the pressure on a line can heighten the risk of problems on the line. If so, the operator must take that pressure change into account as part of their management of that line.”
In response to criticisms, PG&E’s Swanson said raising pipeline pressures to legal maximums still provided for a “very wide margin of safety.”
“Operators throughout the industry routinely increase and decrease pressure in pipelines for a variety of reasons, and are permitted to do so” under the law, Swanson said. “Increasing the pressure on a transmission line to full (maximum) is permitted by code and was part of PG&E’s routine program to ensure operational flexibility.”
What’s in the ground?
Although the utility has suspended the practice, Swanson said PG&E “will continue to adjust pressure on its pipelines up to (the legal maximum) to meet customer demands.” He did not elaborate.
Carl Weimer, head of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, said PG&E’s actions were troubling because “they don’t know what was in the ground, yet they were monkeying with the pressure anyway. That shows incompetence.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the San Bruno blast, expressed alarm this month that PG&E’s records for the pipeline showed it had been constructed without seams. In fact, federal investigators found, the ruptured portion of the line not only had seams, but was pieced together in several 4-foot-long sections that were constructed to unknown, potentially inferior, specifications.
Seeking PG&E records
The investigators said they were examining the quality of the welds on those seams. They have not reached conclusions about what caused the disaster.
At the urging of the federal agency, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E to produce records of all its transmission lines by March 15 to show they can operate at the levels the utility says they can. So far, the effort has been difficult.
Richard Clark, head of the commission’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division, said records are “scattered about their (PG&E’s) various district and division offices and yards” and may not be reliable.
Early estimates, Clark said, are that PG&E will have to shut down about 400 miles of pipeline in its transmission system to test it with high-pressure water – the only sure way to account for their strength and to expose defects in welds that can lead to ruptures.
Joe Molica, a PG&E spokesman, said such tests can force the utility to take a gas line out of service for as long as 10 days. The per-mile cost of the test is as much as $500,000, he said.
PUC extends PG&E pipeline survey 6 weeks
David R. Baker
San Francisco Chronicle
January 14, 2011
California regulators on Thursday extended by six weeks the deadline for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to conduct a thorough search of records used to set pressure limits in the company’s natural gas pipelines.
The California Public Utilities Commission gave PG&E until March 15 to complete the search, which the commission’s executive director ordered the utility to begin on Jan. 3. The initial deadline had been Feb. 1, but PG&E insisted that it needed more time.
The records search was triggered by the discovery, in December, that PG&E had inaccurate documents about the natural gas pipeline that exploded Sept. 9 in San Bruno.
The company’s records identified the ruptured segment as a seamless pipe, but federal investigators found that it had a longitudinal seam that had been welded, in some areas, only on the outside of the pipe.
Under the commission’s orders, once PG&E locates and verifies the documentation for each pipeline, the company must calculate the maximum pressure allowed in the line, basing the pressure on the line’s weakest segment.
PG&E halts intentional gas line pressure spikes
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
January 11, 2011
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Monday it has suspended the practice of boosting pressure on its natural-gas transmission lines to the legal limit, an announcement it made one day after The Chronicle reported that such a spike might have weakened the San Bruno pipeline before it ruptured.
The Chronicle reported Sunday that on Dec. 9, 2008, PG&E intentionally boosted gas pressure on the San Bruno line for two hours to the maximum legal limit of 400 pounds per square inch. That was more pressure than PG&E has ever acknowledged using on the line, which it normally ran at 375 pounds per square inch.
The utility said the spike was “part of our operating practice,” and that it runs its lines at their maximum once every five years. It did not elaborate on its reasons for doing so.
Experts interviewed by The Chronicle said the 2008 surge could have exacerbated any existing weaknesses on the San Bruno line, making it more vulnerable to failure in a subsequent pressure spike.
The next spike happened on Sept. 9, when a malfunction caused a surge to 386 pounds on the pipeline running from Milpitas to San Francisco. The spike coincided with the rupture of the San Bruno section of the pipe and an explosion and fireball that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
Awaiting probe results
“We have suspended the practice of increasing pressure on a transmission line to ensure (its) operational flexibility, pending the outcome” of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the explosion, PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson said Monday.
Swanson said the utility had not spiked any lines since the San Bruno explosion and has now suspended the practice. He nonetheless defended it as “both safe and reasonable.”
The spokesman said the cap has a “very wide margin of safety” and that boosting gas pressure to the maximum level “should not represent any safety issues.”
The federal safety board has reached no conclusions about what caused the San Bruno disaster. But it said last week that PG&E urgently needed to ensure it had accurate records for all its gas transmission lines, after discovering that the utility had erroneous documentation regarding the 1956-vintage San Bruno pipe.
In the dark?
The revelation raised the possibility that PG&E had no idea how much pressure the pipe could truly withstand when the utility set the maximum pressure at 400 pounds per square inch in 1970.
The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, told all the state’s utilities to produce records for their lines by Feb. 1.
The revelation that PG&E had intentionally spiked pressure on the San Bruno pipe outraged Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, whose district includes the neighborhood devastated by the blast.
“I cannot, for the life of me, understand why they were conducting a test to the maximum allowable pressure on a 50-year-old pipe,” Speier said.
What the PUC knew
She said the fact that PG&E offered minimal explanation for its practice “underscores that it has been the wild, wild West in terms of regulatory authority. Whatever PG&E wants, PG&E was getting.”
Speier added, “I think the CPUC was asleep at the switch in terms of regulation.”
The Public Utilities Commission said only that “we do not have rules about spiking artificially.” A spokeswoman did not respond to queries about whether regulators had been aware of the practice.
When questioned by The Chronicle, PG&E initially said it had conducted the pressure test on the San Bruno line to “preserve” the pipe’s legal capacity, saying federal law required it. A spokesman later backtracked and conceded there was no such requirement. Swanson said the goal of the “routine” pressure increase was to maintain “operational flexibility.”
Under federal law, however, a utility must conduct a high-priority inspection of any pipeline on which the maximum pressure is exceeded. Such an inspection involves shutting down a pipeline and running high-pressure water through it, then fixing any damage that the test exposes.
Speier said she was concerned at the possibility that PG&E believed it had been necessary to spike gas pressure to avoid having the legal capacity reduced, prompting the more rigorous inspections, known as hydrostatic tests, in the event of an accidental surge.
“If they were doing it to game the system and not do the hydrostatic tests, that is the grossest kind of behavior and they are, in fact, playing Russian roulette with the population,” Speier said.
Losing credibility with Leno
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, also said he was concerned about the company’s and regulators’ practices.
“When it has now been documented that neither the CPUC nor PG&E even know what pipes they have in the ground … how can they, with any kind of a straight face, say they know the appropriate pressure level for their systems?” Leno asked. “They have, in my opinion, lost credibility.”
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said he was relieved PG&E has stopped its intentional pressure surges, “especially considering they did not know what was under the street.”
He added, however, “This came too late for San Bruno.”
PG&E surge may have stressed San Bruno line in ’08
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
January 9, 2011
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. briefly raised the pressure on its San Bruno natural gas line to the brink less than two years before the explosion that killed eight people – an action experts call a “huge gamble” that they fear made the pipe more susceptible to failure.
A Chronicle investigation into events before the explosion led PG&E officials to reveal that for two hours on Dec. 9, 2008, the company intentionally boosted gas pressure to the maximum legal limit of 400 pounds per square inch. That was more pressure than PG&E has ever acknowledged using on the line, which it normally ran at 375 pounds per square inch.
The utility initially explained that it had boosted the pressure because federal regulations required it to do so, but later conceded that its interpretation was inaccurate. It then explained that the spike was “part of our operating practice.”
This is the first time the company has ever acknowledged running the San Bruno line at its legal maximum – a level now under scrutiny by federal investigators in light of revelations that PG&E had erroneous records about the pipeline’s characteristics.
The next time the pressure exceeded 375 pounds per square inch on the line was on Sept. 9, when a malfunction caused a surge to 386 pounds – a spike that coincided with the deadly explosion and fireball in San Bruno that destroyed 38 homes.
Early strain in line
PG&E’s intentional surge in 2008 could have strained the San Bruno line and made it more vulnerable to failure at lower pressure levels, according to experts interviewed by The Chronicle. Strain caused by one surge, they said, can weaken a pipe to the point where it can fail at a lower point when pressure surges again.
“If there was a defect very close to failure, it could cause that defect to enlarge,” said Robert Eiber, a nationally recognized pipeline expert. “I’m frankly amazed they were willing to take the risk. I don’t know if they were aware of the risk they were taking or not. But in a case like this, it was a huge gamble.”
When queried by The Chronicle, PG&E initially said federal regulators require that a pipe be run at full strength at least once every five years in order for the utility to “preserve” its legal capacity.
If the pressure ever exceeds that limit, the utility is obligated to conduct a costly, high-priority inspection of the line.
Had PG&E not spiked the pressure on the 30-inch transmission line running from Milpitas to San Francisco, utility spokesman Denny Boyles first said, the pipe’s capacity would have been permanently reduced to 375 pounds per square inch under federal law.
But the spokesman later backtracked when asked to cite the specific federal regulation, saying PG&E’s earlier response was “too general and as a result inaccurate.” He maintained that PG&E still believed that 400 pounds per square inch was a “very safe level” for the San Bruno line.
In a subsequent statement, the company no longer said federal law had prompted its action.
“Putting the pressure up to 400 was part of our operating practice,” Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesman, said Friday. He said the utility operates its lines at their maximum once every five years. He declined to elaborate.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in a statement that the agency “does not require a pipeline operator to do anything” to preserve the legal pressure capacity of gas transmission lines.
When asked about the surge, a spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, said only that “we do not have rules about spiking artificially.”
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the cause of the San Bruno blast is looking at any previous incidents of pressure surges. “That’s going to be part of our investigation, and we will be looking at the pipeline’s operating history,” said Peter Knudson, a safety board spokesman.
Although the San Bruno line did not fail during the 2008 pressure spike, experts interviewed by The Chronicle said the utility had been taking a terrible chance.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant in Redmond, Wash., said that in spiking the pressure, PG&E’s action created the likelihood that “stable operations may be stressed and become unstable.”
“You just don’t go out there and do real-time pressure tests of this magnitude on lines without doing careful thought and evaluation,” Kuprewicz said. “This is a gas transmission pipeline. This is in the middle of a city. You don’t just go raise the pressure on pipelines and hope they stay together.”
Eiber, a pipeline integrity consultant and researcher in Columbus, Ohio, with 50 years of experience in the business, said the natural gas industry all but abandoned artificial spikes after a 1960 incident in New Mexico in which a pipe split along its seam for 8 miles during such a test. No one was hurt.
The September disaster in San Bruno, Eiber said, “demonstrated what could have happened in their spike test. It’s not a good practice.”
Boyles, the PG&E spokesman, declined to respond to the criticisms, citing the federal investigation into what caused the explosion.
The intentional pressure spike was also problematic because questions have emerged since the explosion about whether PG&E knew the real strength of the San Bruno line when it set the maximum gas pressure at 400 pounds per square inch in 1970.
The utility has conceded that its records erroneously showed that the San Bruno section of the pipeline, installed in 1956, had no seams. In fact, federal investigators found, the ruptured portion of the line not only had seams, but was pieced together in several 4-foot-long sections that were constructed to unknown, potentially inferior, specifications.
The National Transportation Safety Board says its investigators are examining the quality of seam welds that held the pipeline together – welds that PG&E did not know existed when it set the pipeline’s maximum pressure. The federal agency has not reached a conclusion about what caused the explosion.
The board said last week that “it is critical to know all the characteristics of a pipeline in order to establish a valid MAOP (maximum allowable operating pressure) below which the pipeline can be safely operated. The NTSB is concerned that these inaccurate records may lead to incorrect” maximum pressure levels.
James Hall, a former chairman of the safety board and now an independent pipeline safety advocate, said PG&E’s erroneous records about the line could have led the utility to set the maximum pressure level too high.
“If you don’t have the records on the pipe, how are you setting the pressure?” Hall said.
In fact, federal pipeline officials say, the intentional 2008 surge might have had some bearing on the validity of PG&E’s subsequent inspection of the line in November 2009, which found no problems in the pipe.
The only pressure figure the government considers relevant, according to the federal pipeline safety agency, is the highest level at which the line was run from about 1997 to 2002, when Congress passed a law requiring regular inspections of pipelines in urban or “high consequence” areas.
That peak becomes a benchmark that could, if exceeded, activate a new inspection.
PG&E officials said Friday that the utility did not run the line above 375 pounds per square inch from 2000 to 2002, but that older records were unavailable.
PG&E has said it kept the San Bruno line’s pressure at 375 pounds per square inch because it was connected to three other, weaker lines with that capacity. PG&E pinched off those lines for the 2008 surge, the utility said.
Putting stress on welds
Any surge above the benchmark level – intentional or otherwise – is exactly the type of incident that, under the 2002 law, should have forced PG&E to conduct a high-priority inspection using a technique that could detect weakness in a pipe’s welds, federal officials said.
That’s because pressure surges can put stress on a line’s welds, meaning the line is no longer considered “stable,” the federal pipeline safety agency said.
PG&E went forward with the November 2009 inspection using a method suitable mainly for detecting pipe corrosion, not weakness in welds.
That method, called direct assessment, involves researching records on a pipeline, electronically mapping it using ski-pole-like devices, and digging spot-check holes to examine the pipe.
The method considered more reliable for finding weak welds involves shutting down a pipe, pumping high-pressure water into it, and then repairing any damage that materializes. PG&E has avoided using it on most of its gas transmission pipes, citing the inconvenience to customers and cost of shutting down lines.
Nevertheless, PG&E’s intentional spike of the line’s pressure might have prevented it from using direct assessment in its 2009 inspection, federal officials indicated.
“Direct assessment is not considered a viable assessment method when manufacturing and construction defects are ‘unstable,’ and therefore would not be permitted under federal regulations,” the pipeline safety agency said.
PG&E did not respond to queries about the legality of the 2009 inspection. The utility has consistently defended direct assessment tests as being reliable.
Hall, the former National Transportation Safety Board chairman, called the 2008 spike “a reckless enterprise” that was “obviously an exercise for their financial situation, not safety.”
“You are dealing with pipe that has been in the ground more than 50 years, it has never had an internal inspection tool in it, has incomplete records, and they now artificially spike the line?” Hall said. “Why would you take such a high-risk action in a high-consequence area?”
Every spike above normal operating pressure presents a risk of disaster in such an old pipeline, Hall said.
“You can roll the dice many times,” he said, “before you come up with snake eyes.”
Feds put nation’s pipeline operators on notice
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
January 6, 2011
Federal safety officials responding to the findings of the San Bruno disaster probe issued a nationwide bulletin Wednesday urging operators of natural-gas pipelines to verify they have accurate records about their lines and to cut pressure on them if they don’t.
The regulators took the unusual step in response to the discovery that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had erroneous records about the high-pressure gas line that exploded in San Bruno in September, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
The revelation raised questions about whether the utility had set the line’s maximum allowable operating pressure too high and whether it had used an inspection method for the pipe that was ill suited to detect some possible weaknesses.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, saying some companies have “failed to detect flaws and deficiencies” in their pipes, called on operators Wednesday to do an exhaustive review of records to ensure they are checking for all possible problems.
If a pipeline operator can’t make a case for a line’s safety, the agency said, it should cut pressure immediately on the line by 20 percent and inspect it.
Not an order
The agency stopped short of issuing orders, however, saying only that such moves should be “strongly considered.” A spokesman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal regulators issued the 13-page directive two days after the National Transportation Safety Board urged them to act in light of PG&E’s “record-keeping problems.” The safety board is leading the probe into the Sept. 9 disaster in San Bruno.
The board noted that PG&E’s drawings and other records showed that the portion of the 1956 pipe that ruptured had been constructed without seams. In fact, the agency said, the failed segment not only had seams, but had been cobbled together with pieces of pipe of unknown specifications and origin.
The faulty records called into question the process that PG&E used to set a safe maximum operating pressure of 400 pounds per square inch on the San Bruno line. The utility usually ran the line at 375 psi, but the pipe ruptured when a malfunction surged the pressure to 386 psi, federal investigators said.
PG&E has admitted its San Bruno records were wrong. On Monday, the safety board issued urgent recommendations for the utility to verify the status of its high-pressure transmission lines in urban areas, and the California Public Utilities Commission then ordered it to do so.
However, the federal safety board stressed that it was concerned that the San Bruno problem was not an isolated one, and that other operators could also have faulty or nonexistent records about their gas lines.
On Wednesday, the pipeline safety agency responded, issuing its nationwide safety bulletin that cited a string of problems in how utilities have inspected gas pipelines in urban areas.
Regulators and federal investigators looking into pipeline accidents have found operators’ inspection programs “lacking,” wrote the agency’s associate pipeline safety administrator, Jeffrey Wiese, without singling out PG&E.
Specifically, he said, some operators have used inspection techniques that failed to check for certain kinds of internal corrosion and weld failure.
Test at issue
The agency was indirectly referring to direct assessment, the method PG&E has used to check most of its urban gas lines. The technique, which includes records reviews, running an electric current through gas lines and spot-checking sections of pipe, is considered reliable for detecting external corrosion but not for finding some other problems, such as weak welds or seams.
In revealing that the San Bruno line had been built with seams, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was looking at the quality of welding for those seams. It did not cite the welds as a possible cause of the disaster, however, and has reached no conclusions about what led to the rupture.
Five months before the San Bruno explosion, state regulators auditing PG&E’s inspection program found that the utility had “preordained” the use of direct assessment on many gas lines without first examining risks that the test could not detect, such as weak welds. PG&E denied the assertion.
Wednesday’s federal directive urged pipeline operators with unreliable records to consider using a high-pressure water test on gas lines, which can expose weak welds or seams, but did not order them to do so. The pipeline safety agency noted that such testing requires a utility to shut down temporarily a gas line, unlike direct assessment.
The Public Utilities Commission issued the same instruction to PG&E in its order Monday. The utility is already running two transmission lines in the East Bay at reduced pressure while it researches its records for them.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, whose district includes the devastated San Bruno neighborhood, welcomed the federal action.
She said the pipeline rupture was a national “wake-up call” to operators. “You can’t operate a pipeline safely if you don’t match the operating pressure with the type of pipe underground,” she said.
The directive, she said, “is more than a friendly reminder. It is a liability warning to those who don’t know the real operating pressure capacity of pipelines that have been underground for decades.”
Richard Kuprewicz, an independent pipeline safety consultant, said the agency’s instructions should not be a problem for “most of the industry.”
“What they are telling people is that they are seeing problems with more than one company,” he said. “But more experienced people in the industry know how important it is to know what kind of pipelines (are) in the ground and how much pressure they are designed for.”
San Bruno blast: Feds urge PG&E to verify records
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
January 4, 2011
Federal investigators probing the deadly San Bruno explosion issued an urgent call Monday for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to dig through its records to make sure it knows the condition of its gas pipelines, and for California regulators to ensure the utility is following safety rules.
The National Transportation Safety Board cited the California utility’s “record-keeping problems” in issuing the extraordinary recommendation, which it made before determining the cause of the Sept. 9 explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
PG&E had told safety board investigators that the section of 1956 pipeline that ruptured had no seams, but that turned out to be wrong. The federal probe is looking at the quality of welding on those seams.
The safety board also revealed Monday that investigators were unsure of the original strength of some sections of the San Bruno pipe, and said PG&E’s records indicating which company made them may be incorrect.
The federal agency recommended that PG&E undertake an “intensive record search” to make sure it knows the type of pipe it has buried in the ground and is conducting appropriate inspections.
Inaccurate records, the safety board noted, might lead utilities to set “potentially unsafe” pressure capacities for pipes.
The agency also singled out the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, in recommending that it ensure the utility “aggressively and diligently” checks its records.
In letters accompanying its urgent notice – the agency has no direct regulatory power – the safety board noted that PG&E had produced drawings and other records that incorrectly indicated the San Bruno pipe was seamless.
Safety board officials also expressed concern that other U.S. pipeline operators “may have discrepancies in their records that could potentially compromise the safe operation” of their lines. But they did not urge other companies to conduct the type of research that it recommended PG&E undertake.
Kirk Johnson, PG&E’s vice president for gas engineering and operations, issued a statement saying the utility “is giving these recommendations close and immediate attention. We have been undertaking an intensive review of our pipeline records, scrutinizing and verifying thousands of documents to confirm the quality of our data.”
In a letter later Monday, the Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E to search for records related to pipe segments, valves, fittings and weld seams and to set maximum operating pressures based on the weakest sections of pipelines. The commission gave PG&E until Feb. 1 to comply.
PG&E officials have admitted to “unacceptable” flaws in records that indicated that the San Bruno line was seamless.
The section of pipe that ruptured included five segments with longitudinal seam welds, some on one side of the pipe and some on both sides, the safety board said. In letters to regulators and the utility, it revealed that these sections had been built to “unknown specifications” and “may not be as strong as the seamless pipe that was indicated in PG&E’s records.”
The federal agency also revealed that although PG&E’s records identify Consolidated Western Steel Corp. as the manufacturer of the San Bruno section of pipe, investigators who have examined the line were unable to confirm that.
“Determining the identity of the manufacturer of these pieces of pipe is an ongoing part of the investigation,” the safety board said.
Water test on pipes
The regulators called on PG&E to search its records about its pipelines and ensure that maximum operating pressures are “based on the weakest section of pipeline.”
They said the surest way to establish a pipeline’s maximum capacity is to run water through it at high pressure, which is also the preferred method for checking for defective seams.
But the safety board noted that doing so “requires that operating lines be shut down, which may adversely affect customers dependent on the natural gas supplied by the pipeline.”
As a result, the safety board said, PG&E should conduct such tests only on lines for which its records are nonexistent or unreliable.
The board said it would hold hearings into the San Bruno explosion on March 1 and 2.
Trying to verify information
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who represents the San Bruno neighborhood where the explosion happened, said she had spoken to safety board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman about Monday’s action.
“I think the reason why the NTSB is making this urgent,” Speier said, “and these are my words, not theirs, is that they are concerned that this is a situation where you have garbage in, garbage out.
“The problem is they can’t verify the information,” Speier said. The onus is now on PG&E to prove that its records are reliable, she said.
Federal officials “are putting the accelerator on, and they are now holding a fact-finding hearing,” Speier said. “That is fairly unprecedented. Here they are, they are not a regulator, they are an investigator, and they are making the regulators accountable.”
San Bruno blast: Failures tied to PG&E, regulators
Demian Bulwa and Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
December 26, 2010
Before the deadly natural gas blast hit his home in San Bruno, Bill Magoolaghan didn’t even know that a major Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline ran nearby. He never noticed a string of yellow medallions, stamped into the pavement above the line, that warned workers not to gouge the pipe when digging.
Had he known, he said, he might not have cared.
“You figure it must be checked so carefully because it’s so dangerous,” said Magoolaghan, 47, who is living with his wife and four young children in a Belmont rental while they rebuild their burnt-out home.
“But then you find out, in reality, that it’s not being checked carefully,” he said. “And we have to pay for it with our lives and our skin and our houses.”
Three and a half months after the pipe burst and sprayed flames through the neighborhood, the search for answers – and peace of mind – has revealed a chain of failures and compromises in the way PG&E operated and inspected the pipeline, as well as in the way the California Public Utilities Commission regulated its use.
The cause of the blast Sept. 9, which killed eight people and wiped out 38 homes, is still not known. But in a recent interim report, the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators were exploring the quality of so-called seam welds along the spine of the pipe – welds that PG&E admits it did not know existed and did not inspect.
Pipeline safety experts say disasters like the one in San Bruno tend to be the result of a series of breakdowns.
“Whenever there’s a catastrophic failure, usually you have a perfect storm of things going wrong,” said Glen Stevick, an expert in failure analysis of pipelines and a former UC Berkeley instructor. “One is that this happened in a populated area. You could have had this same event out in the open, and nothing would have happened.”
The question now is not whether there will be changes – those changes have begun – but how far the reforms will go, how transparent they will be and how much comfort they will bring.
Making natural gas delivery safer will be expensive, experts say, and require sustained commitment by PG&E, regulators and legislators, along with customers, who will bear much of the cost.
The rupture, though, may have come at a favorable time for change. Congress must update federal pipeline safety laws next year, and safety advocates are optimistic lawmakers will strengthen them – in part because of the pressure created by the San Bruno tragedy.
Meanwhile, California’s governor-elect, Jerry Brown, is set to appoint at least two commissioners next month to the five-member board of the state Public Utilities Commission, a powerful agency that has come under intense scrutiny since the blast.
Reforms are likely to hinge in large part on the federal safety board’s findings. For example, if the seam weld failed, said transportation safety board member Mark Rosekind, the agency probably would put out an urgent safety recommendation for pipeline operators across the country to check for the problem.
Whatever the findings are, experts say, the San Bruno blast is likely to put a laser focus on two questions:
How can state regulators police pipeline operators more effectively? And how can those operators better inspect the 20,000 miles of natural-gas transmission lines nationwide that must be regularly examined because they move through densely populated areas?
The blast also brought up more philosophical issues that resonate across the country. One is that it can be difficult to prepare for big events that happen rarely, such as a terrorist attack or levee break – or a pipeline rupture in a neighborhood. Another is that sometimes only a calamity can spur change.
“The natural gas system is largely outside of public consciousness – unless something goes terribly wrong,” said Steve Weissman, who teaches energy law at UC Berkeley and is a former administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission.
There is also a heavy dose of reality that shadows the blast’s aftermath: The part of the pipeline that exploded was installed in 1956, making it a piece of the country’s aging infrastructure.
No one disputes that throwing money at the problem – for example, buying tougher gas pipes that can spring a small leak without rupturing catastrophically – would increase safety. But there is simply too much to do and too many lines to replace.
Brigham McCown, a former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the San Bruno disaster may force the federal government to give local agencies more guidance on separating people and dangerous fuel lines, or at least reducing the risks if a pipe fails.
“Should a residential community be right next to a massive pipeline?” asked McCown, a Dallas lawyer who represents oil and gas pipeline companies. “Should there be green spaces around pipelines, like you have with overhead electrical lines? To me, that’s the one big piece that no one has taken a look at.”
McCown, though, added, “One of the concerns is that you have a lot of places like San Bruno where it’s kind of too late to change your land use. The people are already there.”
Indeed, PG&E and its regulators face a predicament that spans decades.
According to federal and company records reviewed by The Chronicle, two-thirds of PG&E’s network of natural gas transmission lines statewide – or almost 3,850 miles – was constructed before 1970, setting up a backlog of modernization projects.
The segment of pipe that burst in San Bruno was installed in a pasture that was, at the time, being bulldozed to make way for the Crestmoor subdivision. It was constructed, as most big pipes were at the time, by fabricators who curled a flat plate of metal around a cylinder and joined the sides together with a seam weld.
But a single, straight pipe was not installed. Several pipe pieces were fastened together – welded along their circumference – allowing the line to turn down a slight canyon to the blast site, which sits at a low point, and then turn back up the opposite hill.
Welds before warning
Because of its age, experts say, the pipe almost certainly had welds that were of a vintage that was the subject of a warning by the federal Office of Pipeline Safety in 1988.
The agency said pipeline firms should reconsider using big transmission lines that were built before 1970 with a lower-quality seam welding technique – one that had factored into more than 100 failures of natural gas transmission lines.
In 2002, after two pipeline disasters killed 15 people, Congress required companies to inspect all transmission lines in “high consequence” areas by 2012.
PG&E helped influence the rules of that law, making it easier to use an inspection method that almost certainly would not have caught a weak weld. In the process, the utility saved millions of dollars it would otherwise have had to spend to upgrade lines to accept other testing techniques.
PG&E’s inspectors did get to the line that later ruptured, declaring it safe after a November 2009 inspection. But experts suspect – particularly after learning that PG&E thought the pipe that burst had no seams – that the company did not use an effective inspection technique.
The pipeline inspection tool that many experts recommend is a “smart pig,” a torpedo-like instrument that is sent through a line. But PG&E officials said the pipeline in San Bruno wasn’t uniformly straight or wide enough for a pig.
Instead, the company used a method called direct assessment, sending an electric current through the line. Workers walked the route and probed the ground for signs of weakness, then dug holes to spot-check the pipe.
PG&E says it has used direct assessment almost 80 percent of the time while inspecting gas lines in high-consequence areas. But the technique is best suited for detecting corrosion on the outside of a pipe – and is not approved to test for many threats such as earth settlement or weld failure.
In an audit conducted just four months before the San Bruno rupture, state inspectors concluded that PG&E had at times approached direct assessment as if they had “preordained” that it was appropriate, a charge the utility denied.
PG&E has acknowledged that it could have tested the pipeline for a greater set of potential threats by doing a hydrostatic test, a third method approved under federal law in which an operator shuts off the gas, pumps water into segments at high pressure and then fixes any blowouts.
But Kirk Johnson, PG&E’s vice president for pipeline operations, cited a concern for customers.
“Taking it out of service for three to seven days to test it,” he said during a recent forum for victims in San Bruno, “is a real burden for the folks that count on that gas every day.”
But experts such as Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group in Bellingham, Wash., noted that PG&E had other transmission lines near San Bruno that could be used during high-pressure water testing. After all, he said, PG&E rerouted gas from the San Bruno line after the explosion with no customers losing service.
“They do have a parallel line there,” Weimer said. “Something just doesn’t ring true with that whole scenario.”
McCown, the former federal pipeline official, said the federal government now is “likely to move away from relying on external direct assessment. We’re now moving to a point with the technology that the combination of internal line inspections and hydrostatic pressure testing gives you a better picture.”
The Sept. 9 blast, experts said, is also likely to force the increased use of automatic and remotely controlled shutoff valves in pipelines. In San Bruno, such valves could have limited the fuel that continued to surge through the 30-inch-diameter pipe and feed the inferno for an hour and a half before workers reached manual shutoffs.
Records show that the federal safety board had put PG&E on notice regarding the importance of automatic valves as far back as 1981, after the rupture of a 16-inch natural gas main in downtown San Francisco forced 30,000 people to flee from toxic fumes.
Workers responding to that accident took nine hours to shut manual valves, including one that had been paved over.
In a 1999 report by the U.S. Transportation Department, PG&E itself had said remotely controlled valves were superior to manual ones, providing “major economic advantages by minimizing company liability.”
But it took the tragedy in San Bruno to force change. PG&E said in October that it will install hundreds of automatic shutoffs as the centerpiece of a series of improvements scheduled to be completed by 2020.
Bay Area lawmakers also introduced legislation that would require utilities to install the shutoffs in earthquake zones and densely populated areas.
Some of the biggest changes may be coming to the Public Utilities Commission, which enforces gas safety laws on behalf of the federal government.
Jeff Brown, a member of the commission from 2001 to 2007, said the state agency has long been focused on financial issues such as setting rates for consumers.
“Gas pipeline safety was not on the radar,” he said. “It’s like anything else in regulatory work – you concentrate on things that are right before you.”
‘Culture of fear’ seen
Loretta Lynch, a former commission chairwoman who left the agency when her five-year term expired in 2004, went further.
“There is a culture of fear at the PUC that if you do your job, you will be sat on,” she said, “because the job is to get along with the utilities, not to enforce against the utilities.”
Records reviewed by The Chronicle show the commission has not been tough with PG&E, even though the company’s 48,000 miles of gas pipes in California have seen 43 major accidents in the past decade. The agency has not levied a single fine against PG&E, or any other utility, for violations related to natural gas since at least 1999.
A separate Chronicle review of state records showed that, with the commission’s nine natural gas pipeline inspectors, California has been conducting the fewest safety inspections of any state, mile for mile.
Commission officials defended the inspections, saying they were aggressive and effective, but said last month that they will hire four more inspectors, allowing the state to meet federal staffing minimums for the first time since 2002.
As for the lack of fines, commission Executive Director Paul Clanon said his agency’s oversight “depends on there being no disincentive for the utility to report problems. Remember, the utility doesn’t want their pipelines to be unsafe.”
Note of caution
But Clanon also said change was coming. “At the end of this,” he said, “we need to have a better system at the federal level, and enforced here at the state.”
PG&E’s watchdogs outside the state government are excited about the new focus – but also wary.
Mike Florio, a gas expert with the consumer group The Utility Reform Network, said he was anxious about a headlong rush to outfit pipelines with automatic shutoff valves and to retrofit lines to enable inspection with smart pigs. Such costly work must be tightly focused on where it could save lives, he said.
“We want the system to be safe, and we don’t want a repeat of this, but people have to be able to afford to turn the gas on,” Florio said. “If we rebuild the whole system, it’s going to be mind-bogglingly expensive.”
Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was concerned that the blast’s damage won’t be enough to force the kind of fundamental change he sees as necessary.
“Time slides away. The public forgets and the people responsible for safety forget, and it happens again,” Hall said. “It took the Exxon Valdez (oil spill) to finally double-hull tankers. It may take an even larger disaster than this to address the issue of aging pipelines, because it’s such an expensive issue to address.”
Blast zone emptiness
In San Bruno, no one is forgetting what happened. The giant crater that opened when the pipeline burst still scars a neighborhood where grass covers three dozen empty lots. Some people who lost homes hung Christmas stockings on chain-link fences surrounding their properties.
But don’t expect blast victims to lead a push for pipeline safety, said Magoolaghan, the resident with the gutted house.
Once he and other residents persuaded PG&E to move the ill-fated pipeline out of the neighborhood forever, they took a collective breath and focused on the tasks at hand – treating burn injures, seeking compensation from PG&E, compiling lists of destroyed property for insurance companies, and hiring contractors.
“Right now I don’t really care about pipeline safety,” said Magoolaghan, who co-owns a market research firm. “That’s my lawyer’s problem, that’s the PUC’s problem, and that’s PG&E’s problem. I’m not an expert. I have no idea about that stuff.
“We’re not going to be worldwide advocates for pipeline safety,” he said. “We’re just trying to get our lives back.”
PG&E pushed controversial pipeline inspection plan
Eric Nalder and Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
December 23, 2010
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. led the successful lobbying campaign to persuade federal regulators writing natural-gas safety rules seven years ago to endorse a pipe inspection method many experts see as deficient – the technique used on the pipeline that later failed catastrophically in San Bruno.
A PG&E executive was one of the main industry proponents of the then-new testing regimen, interviews with people who were involved in the rule-writing process and a Chronicle review of documents show. The federal government’s decision to allow the method saved PG&E millions of dollars because the utility didn’t have to upgrade its system to accommodate other inspection technology.
The method PG&E used in San Bruno is called direct assessment, which involves records research, surface-level electronic testing and digging holes to spot-check small portions of buried pipelines. When the utility used it on the San Bruno transmission line in November 2009, it found no problems.
Ten months later, the line ruptured, causing an explosion and fire that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the blast and has not arrived at a cause, but said last week that it was looking into whether a weld on a lateral seam of the pipe had failed.
Direct assessment is not designed to check for weak welds – it is most effective at detecting corrosion on the outside of pipes – and operators are supposed to document that a line is free of such problems before they rely solely on the technique.
PG&E has defended the use of direct assessment on the San Bruno line, but also conceded that until the disaster, it was unaware the pipeline had the type of seam weld that may have failed.
The utility has used direct assessment elsewhere on the 51.5-mile pipe running from Milpitas to South San Francisco, as well as on much of the rest of its pipeline system.
“I think all the direct assessment techniques work very well,” said Kirk Johnson, PG&E vice president in charge of transmission pipelines.
Writing the rules
The lobbying campaign to allow direct assessment stemmed from a law Congress passed in 2002 requiring regular gas pipeline inspections in populated areas. Former congressional staffer Rick Kessler said lawmakers had accepted the concept of direct assessment so the industry would buy into the law’s other requirements. But he said it was the “least favored” of three test methods listed in the statute.
Final inspection rules were left to regulation writers at the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, said Kessler, now vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an advocacy group.
That rule-making process, said group executive director Carl Weimer, is where “the details get laid.” And for PG&E, the initial details were not encouraging.
In January 2003, the Office of Pipeline Safety published proposed rules that favored the use of two inspection methods – hydrostatic testing, in which water is run through a gas pipe at high pressure to see if it leaks, and ultrasonic assessments, in which torpedo-shaped devices known as smart pigs are run through a line.
Both methods are far more likely than direct assessment to detect non-corrosion problems that can weaken a pipe, such as a bad weld. But both posed problems for PG&E.
Many of its gas-transmission lines have curves, sharp angles and constrictive valves that make it impossible to accommodate smart pigs, and retrofitting the system would take years and cost the utility millions of dollars.
Hydrostatic tests are expensive, require pipeline shutdowns and involve other complications, such as disposing of the wastewater.
Persuading federal regulators to let PG&E and other pipeline operators use direct assessment with as few restrictions as possible was Alan Eastman’s job.
Eastman was PG&E’s manager of system integrity, a metallurgical engineer with the utility for two decades and an early advocate of direct assessment, which had been cobbled together from previously used inspection techniques. He left PG&E in 2005 to oversee direct assessment for the contracting firm that later inspected the San Bruno pipe.
Eastman had plenty of help from industry allies in the lobbying campaign.
At one public hearing in Washington, D.C., in March 2003, at which Eastman presented a case for direct assessment, U.S. Transportation Department executive Sam Bonasso called for a show of hands. Industry officials and contractors packed the room, government officials were less numerous, and there was one person representing the general public: Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant from Redmond, Wash., who maintained that direct assessment was inferior to other testing methods.
“Well, Rick … you’ve got a big job ahead of you,” Bonasso said. “Anybody wants to change sides? … He could use some help on his team.”
In a recent interview, Kuprewicz recalled, “Let’s see. There’s three or four of us against 4,000. It’s the American way.”
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica stressed that Eastman and the utility were not the only ones pushing direct assessment.
Eastman, however, was a clear leader among his peers. A recent report prepared for a Utah pipeline company described him as being “instrumental in development of direct assessment methods in the period 2000 through 2003.”
Terry Boss, vice president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said Eastman was a “thought leader” in the battle for direct assessment.
Besides lobbying federal regulators, Eastman worked with the head of the pipeline safety division at the California Public Utilities Commission to pave the way for direct assessment, said pipeline engineering consultant Ed Ondak, who headed the Western regional office of the federal pipeline safety office until 2002.
“Alan helped get a lot of that passed,” Ondak said.
Eastman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Hurdles for test
The Office of Pipeline Safety’s initial rule proposal in January 2003 created impediments for a pipe operator that wanted to use direct assessment.
A company would have to prove to the government the necessity and viability of the technique every time it wanted to use that method instead of running a smart pig or high-pressure water through a pipeline.
Also, at least once in a pipeline’s lifetime, it would have to be tested with hydrostatic pressure unless the operator could prove that wasn’t needed.
Pipeline operators were already on record as being unenthusiastic about such tests. In a letter to the Office of Pipeline Safety in December 2002, the American Gas Association, representing gas retailers, and a group representing public gas utilities said hydrostatic testing should be “sparingly used.”
Eastman had told regulators the year before that PG&E hadn’t used hydrostatic pressure tests often. What’s more, he said, the utility had “little experience” with smart pigs, and making its lines able to accommodate them wouldn’t be cheap.
The company had spent $5 million in the previous two years making just 200 miles of its 6,300 miles of transmission pipes piggable, Eastman said.
On the other hand, he said, “Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been effectively using direct assessment for years.”
He was referring to test uses of direct assessment, a technique that wasn’t formalized in industry standards until 2002.
PG&E had legitimate financial and operational issues, said Boss, and too few gas retail companies were paying attention.
“He did have a dog in the fight,” Boss said, “but there were a lot of dogs out there that didn’t know they had a fight.”
Industry arguments in favor of direct assessment were made on technical, safety and cost-benefit terms, but the financial issues were always in the foreground. At the time, for example, the majority of pipelines nationally could not accommodate smart pigs.
Most of the skepticism about direct assessment came from a handful of people who had been touched by two pipeline disasters that prompted Congress to pass the inspection law – a 1999 gasoline-line explosion in Bellingham, Wash., that burned three boys to death, and a 2000 natural-gas pipeline blast at a campground outside Carlsbad, N.M., that killed 12 members of a family.
Carol Parker, a lawyer for the state of New Mexico, said she couldn’t forget a nurse’s account of how a woman mortally injured in the campground explosion had assured her dying daughter that she would be safe in the hands of a firefighter who was carrying her away.
She said recently that lawmakers and regulators “don’t appreciate the consequences” of pipeline accidents.
“They want a rule that makes the worst company in the industry happy,” Parker said, without naming any firm.
Kuprewicz, the pipeline safety consultant, recalled the “pleading eyes” of a mother of one of the boys who had been killed in the Washington blast.
He said in 2003 that direct assessment was “seriously deficient” because it was ill-equipped to find problems other than corrosion, a view he still holds.
Parker pointed out that maintaining accurate records on the condition of pipes is a major ingredient in establishing that a line is suitable for direct assessment, and recalled telling federal rule-writers that pipeline operators often fall short.
In the case of the San Bruno pipeline, that concern proved valid, as PG&E was forced to admit it hadn’t known the line had been held together by a seam weld.
That’s potentially crucial because the Office of Pipeline Safety never approved direct assessment to check for weak welds. If there was a bad weld present at the time of the November 2009 inspection, direct assessment would not have been the way to catch it.
Much of what PG&E and the rest of the gas-pipeline industry sought during the rule-making process, they won.
When the final rule was published in December 2003, the major impediments to direct assessment were gone. The federal government blessed it as a primary inspection technique not just for external corrosion, but for corrosion on the inside of a pipe and for stress corrosion cracking.
Also gone was the proposed requirement that pipeline operators run high-pressure water through their lines at least once.
A key to PG&E’s eventual widespread use of direct assessment was a provision that allowed it to consider older pipes, which are most at risk of weld problems, as being vulnerable only to corrosion if an operator’s “pre-assessment” – a review of records – ruled out other risks.
Four months before the San Bruno blast, California auditors questioned whether PG&E was doing enough to examine those risks, saying the utility appeared to have “preordained” the use of direct assessment. The utility denied doing so.
Julia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the federal pipeline office, defended the rule-making process, saying that without the 2002 law, there would be “no regulations that required pipeline operators to identify risks and address them.”
Without direct assessment, she added, pipelines couldn’t be checked if they couldn’t accommodate smart pigs or be shut down for hydrostatic testing.
Today, former PG&E executive Eastman is a vice president for Mears Group, in charge of direct assessment, overseeing the contract work on PG&E’s lines.
Ondak, the former pipeline safety agency official, said he had been impressed by Eastman’s grasp of the issues and recalled him as being “very honest in what he was doing.”
But he was concerned about Eastman’s movement through industry’s revolving door.
“They (Mears) were the very people who PG&E brought in to do the assessment of the pipelines,” Ondak said. “To me it was shocking – it just felt like it was a conflict of interest, like feathering our own bed.”
So far, PG&E has run smart pigs through 21 percent of the gas transmission lines it has tested under the federal law and run high-pressure water tests on just 2 percent. It has used direct assessment on the rest.
By contrast, Southern California Gas Co., the state’s largest gas retailer, has run smart pigs through 80 percent of the lines it has tested.
PG&E’s Johnson declined to discuss why the company relies so heavily on direct assessment. He said the company’s greatest concerns are third-party damage by people who dig near pipelines and external corrosion, and added: “You have to pick the right tool for the right job.
“We go straight by the code,” he said.
Bonasso, the now-retired government executive who took roll at the 2003 meeting, says PG&E’s reliance on direct assessment is disappointing.
“That’s unfortunate, as many people as they serve,” he said. “It’s too bad that they don’t have better technology.”
PG&E inspection methods questioned in May audit
Jaxon Van Derbeken and Eric Nalder
San Francisco Chronicle
December 19, 2010
An audit done just four months before the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion suggested that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was improperly taking shortcuts to use an inspection method for high-pressure natural gas lines that cannot detect some dangerous problems.
One such problem is weakness in welds that hold a pipeline together, which federal investigators said last week was one of the factors they were examining in the Sept. 9 explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes.
The May audit, obtained by The Chronicle under the federal Freedom of Information Act, was performed by four California Public Utilities Commission inspectors at the behest of the federal government. Their job was to determine how well PG&E was complying with a 2002 federal law requiring inspections of all natural gas transmission pipelines in urban areas.
PG&E has used a method called direct assessment on about three-fourths of the gas pipeline mileage it has tested so far, including on the San Bruno pipeline that later exploded. The method involves running an electric current through a pipeline and having workers on the ground monitor for indications of weakness. Workers then dig holes at random spots along the line to verify the findings.
Federal law allows two other main types of inspections – high-pressure water testing and ultrasonic testing by an automated device known as a smart pig, or pipeline inspection gauge. Both are approved for detecting weak welds, while direct assessment is not.
Because of direct assessment’s limitations, under the federal law PG&E must rule out the risk of weld failure on a pipe before it runs such an inspection.
That ruling-out process involves checking lines for various risk factors, determining the strength and type of pipe and welds used, and examining a pipe’s history for anything that could have weakened it, such as a pressure spike, earth movement or third-party damage.
However, the recent audit found that PG&E often started to perform the direct assessment inspection first, then justified it as it went along.
“Pre-assessments are supposed to be performed as the first step,” the audit said. However, inspectors said, PG&E “on a routine basis” was checking for the other risks as it was performing the direct assessment tests.
In effect, the inspectors said, PG&E had “preordained” that the gas lines would be tested with direct assessment, and the method’s use was “forced to be a given.”
San Bruno mystery
Because the audit was performed before the San Bruno disaster, there is nothing that addresses what process PG&E went through before running a direct-assessment inspection on that line in November 2009.
An interim report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the blast, released last week, said PG&E had submitted documents showing it was unaware that the 1956-vintage pipeline even had the type of welds that investigators are now examining in their search for a cause for the explosion.
Direct assessment is most effective at finding corrosion on the outside of a pipe, although it is also approved for checking for internal corrosion. It is not designed to check for weak welds.
Many experts say high-pressure water testing and smart pigs are the surest ways to find those kinds of weaknesses. But PG&E says much of its transmission pipeline mileage in urban areas cannot accommodate smart pigs, and that water testing requires lengthy and disruptive pipeline shutdowns.
PG&E responded to the audit with a 34-page report Thursday in which it said it was making improvements, but in many cases defended its actions.
In some cases, the utility acknowledged having done direct assessment on lines that could take smart pigs because of its faith in the technique and its focus on external corrosion as a threat.
A spokesman for the utility, Joe Molica, disputed the audit’s assertion that PG&E “preordained” the use of direct assessment.
“Due to scheduling logistics, steps are sometimes run in parallel,” Molica said. “However, when any information learned in the pre-assessment step questions the feasibility of performing (direct assessment) … changes are made to the assessment plan.”
A spokeswoman with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which commissioned the audit, said in a statement that the agency’s inspectors “require pipeline operators to clearly demonstrate that the assessment method the company is using is appropriate for the conditions of the pipeline.” She did not comment further.
A spokeswoman for the Public Utilities Commission said in a statement that the 2010 audit was “not yet public” and did not respond to questions about it.
The May audit raised additional issues about how PG&E was carrying out its inspections and other measures it took to safeguard the more than 1,000 miles of high-pressure gas lines in urban areas of Northern and Central California.
The inspectors said PG&E had a spotty safety protocol that lacked specifics on what records needed to be kept and how quickly the utility needed to document the existence of a problem.
They said there was no evidence that key supervisors involved in PG&E’s corrosion inspections “had received formal training,” as required by law.
A PG&E safety committee that was supposed to evaluate new risks that could endanger gas pipelines didn’t meet in 2009, although it was required to do so, the audit said.
The team also criticized PG&E for picking and choosing locations to dig up around its gas lines to verify inspection findings, when under federal law it is supposed to select the sites at random.
Richard Kuprewicz, a nationally recognized consultant on pipeline safety who reviewed the audit, said, “There seems to be a pattern. The pattern is that this utility does not seem to be trying to comply with the intent of the regulation. … It appears that they let the outcome dictate the process rather than the other way around.”
But Kirk Johnson, a PG&E vice president, said in a statement that “the bottom line is that any time we find something that could potentially pose a safety issue, we work to fix it immediately. We do not wait for orders from our regulators to do that.”
The May audit is not the first time inspectors have raised issues about PG&E’s pipeline safety protocol. In 2005, federal and state inspectors conducted a similar audit and found an incident in which PG&E knew of a weld failure on one of its pipelines but didn’t consider the possibility of such failures when assessing similar pipelines.
PG&E began considering certain defective welds as a threat only after the audit turned up the problem, the inspectors said.
The 2005 audit also found that PG&E had failed to fix or replace severely corroded pipe in “multiple locations.” In those cases, federal law calls for immediate repair.
Caused 2000 disaster
Corrosion is the second-leading cause of pipeline accidents – in 2000, it led to an explosion on a natural-gas line near Carlsbad, N.M., that killed 12 members of a family on a camping trip.
The 2005 audit found one case where a transmission pipeline similar to the San Bruno line had lost 86 percent of wall thickness, but said PG&E had failed to reduce operating pressure and fix it.
“This is a severe violation in regard to addressing immediate repair conditions,” the report said.
Molica, the PG&E spokesman, said the utility disagreed that waiting to make repairs on such lines constituted a safety threat and that it had followed all regulations.
However, he said, “After the audit, PG&E agreed to make the change requested by the CPUC, and to treat those anomalies as immediate repairs.”
State inspector warned PG&E of safety risks in ’09
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
December 16, 2010
California regulators warned Pacific Gas and Electric Co. last year that persistent safety problems in its gas distribution system were putting the public at risk, according to a strongly worded letter obtained by The Chronicle.
The letter from a senior gas safety inspector suggests the relationship between regulators and the utility leading up to the deadly Sept. 9 pipeline explosion in San Bruno was more contentious than top state officials have portrayed publicly.
It also refers to cases in which the utility was apparently ignorant of key aspects of its own system, a finding similar to what federal investigators looking into the San Bruno disaster concluded in an interim report released Tuesday.
“It is apparent to us that the failure of PG&E to provide adequate procedures, or the failure of PG&E personnel to follow established procedures, has resulted in safety risks that would most likely not have been created” if the utility had abided by the law, Sunil Shori, a safety inspector with the California Public Utilities Commission, wrote in a Feb. 13, 2009, letter that The Chronicle obtained under the state public records law.
Shori wrote that PG&E was having trouble following federal law requiring that workers who check for gas leaks be properly trained. He also said the utility was not making sure it was complying with the law when it linked up gas lines with different allowable pressures, and sometimes was unaware it was doing so.
His concerns dealt with the utility’s distribution system – the network of smaller pipes that routes gas to homes and meters – not the higher-pressure transmission pipes used to send gas over long distances such as the one that exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people and leveling 37 homes.
Although failures in distribution lines may not result in such massive destruction, they can still be deadly. A leak from a botched repair at a distribution line in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County) that a PG&E worker failed to detect led to an explosion in December 2008 that killed a 72-year-old man.
“Although PG&E has implemented programs to address these safety risks going forward,” Shori wrote in his letter, “we see no reason why PG&E should not have been able to address these risks during the course of normal construction, operation and maintenance activities occurring in past years.”
The frustration Shori expressed in the letter was at odds with the stance his supervisors took publicly after the San Bruno disaster.
Shori’s boss, Richard Clark, said in a Chronicle interview one month after the blast that “we don’t see problems” with PG&E that would warrant strict enforcement actions.
“We don’t see it,” said Clark, head of the Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division. “This is an anomalous event that took place in San Bruno.”
Clark and other commission officials have said PG&E’s comparatively high level of gas-safety law violations in recent years – the company accumulated more citations from the agency than all other utilities in California combined from 2004 through 2009 – was the product of the regulatory approach that encourages utilities to report their own safety problems.
Paul Clanon, executive director of the commission, has said regulators encourage the utility to find and fix its own problems as a way to build a “culture of safety.”
However, according to the letter by Shori, an engineer involved in day-to-day enforcement of gas safety laws, PG&E had a record of “apparent deficiencies” in its gas distribution system that “impact public safety” and violated state and federal law.
Shori’s letter, addressed to the director of gas engineering at PG&E, said the utility was not making sure properly trained workers were in the field to check for gas leaks.
Federal investigators later blamed the December 2008 pipeline explosion in Rancho Cordova in part on PG&E’s use of an untrained worker who failed to locate a neighborhood gas leak. The utility could ultimately face fines for that and other alleged safety law violations in the accident.
Shori also said the utility wasn’t keeping track of the designated gas pressure on its distribution lines – pointing to at least five cases in which lines with differing pressures had been linked up without proper documentation. In some of the cases, lines that were supposed to be run at lower pressures were linked to ones running at higher pressures – creating a safety risk of overloading the lower-pressure lines.
Shori found that in two of the cases, the utility had ignored the required testing process needed to safely link the systems, and that in three of them, it had been unaware of the links altogether.
That was similar to a finding the National Transportation Safety Board reached in its interim report on the San Bruno blast.
The agency said it had reached no conclusions about a cause, but that one factor it was examining closely was whether a weld running along the lateral seam of the pipe had failed. Investigators said PG&E had been unaware that the pipe, installed 54 years ago, even had that type of weld.
The finding surprised independent experts, who said the utility’s ignorance might have led it to use an unreliable inspection method on the pipe less than a year before it exploded.
In his 2009 letter, Shori said the utility wasn’t doing enough to find pipes and meters that could be vulnerable to corrosion and catastrophic failure. In some cases, he said, key safety issues were given “low priority” and that in others, PG&E did nothing to check the integrity of gas meters.
Shori said some of PG&E officials’ assertions that the utility was in compliance with the law were “not entirely correct” or did “not make sense.” He worried that PG&E was taking too long to fix its problems, given “the reduced level of safety.”
Four months later, PG&E responded.
“We are striving to address all gas maintenance and operation issues as quickly as possible without compromising employee and public safety,” wrote Glen Carter, the utility’s director of gas engineering.
Carter said the utility’s approach was “consistent with the joint goal of PG&E and (state regulators) – to maximize safety and reliability of the distribution system by encouraging the utility to regularly inspect or monitor its system and … take prompt remedial action” to fix any problems in a “reasonable” time.
Joe Molica, a spokesman for the utility, said this week that PG&E had “aggressively addressed” regulators’ concerns about the distribution network and now regularly meets with inspectors to coordinate responses to the problems it finds.
In a statement issued this week, the Public Utilities Commission called Shori’s letter “appropriately strongly worded” and “one of the first steps of our enforcement process.”
The commission said PG&E had “expeditiously moved to make corrective actions.”
“If PG&E had not voluntarily brought their discovery of issues to the CPUC, and moved expeditiously to take corrective action, the CPUC would have levied fines and penalties,” the commission said.
But Dean Florez, a former Democratic state senator from Kern County who challenged regulators about oversight practices at a legislative hearing on San Bruno in October, said Shori’s letter “completely contradicts” commission officials’ assertions that PG&E consistently kept safety in mind and reported its own problems.
“It’s beyond stunning that the CPUC would just bury this kind of information from an oversight committee,” said Florez, who left office this month and wants Gov.-elect Jerry Brown to appoint him to the commission. “How could they have missed this?”
Florez said Clanon and Clark both portrayed PG&E’s safety record as solid during the October legislative hearing. Neither commission official returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.
“They both need to explain themselves – not only to the (Public Utilities Commission) board but to the public – about what they knew and why the CPUC was withholding this kind of information to an oversight committee,” Florez said.
“It’s just really scary to know how they operate.”
Legislators want more gas pipeline inspectors
Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
November 22, 2010
California’s natural-gas regulators need to hire more inspectors immediately to check on the state’s pipelines in the wake of the San Bruno explosion that killed eight people, state legislators say.
The Chronicle reported earlier this month that mile for mile, California’s regulators devote the least time to pipeline inspections of any state. Federal officials have withheld a portion of funding for inspections for seven years in a row because the state has not met Washington’s enforcement targets.
Officials with the California Public Utilities Commission admit they’ve fallen short of the targets, but defend the efforts by the current staff of nine inspectors as “aggressive and effective.” However, after the explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas transmission line in San Bruno on Sept. 9, state regulators said they would seek to hire four more inspectors in the next budget year.
In a Nov. 10 letter to the commission’s executive director, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima (Los Angeles County), urged that the agency not wait to get the process going. The commission, he said, needs to hire four inspectors now.
“I was surprised to learn that the (state) has only nine investigators to protect consumers from the hazards of a natural gas delivery system,” Padilla told commission Executive Director Paul Clanon in the letter.
Padilla noted that agency officials have admitted that at best, the state can check on only 1 percent of the 110,000 miles of gas pipelines that the commission regulates.
“Given the gravity of issues surrounding the San Bruno explosion, I am urging you to immediately review your current fiscal year budget to determine whether the CPUC can shift funding” to start hiring, Padilla wrote.
“Should you determine that you lack the funds,” Padilla said, “I urge you to work with the Department of Finance to determine other funding options available immediately.”
Bringing on four new inspectors would mean that the state would meet federal minimum inspection levels for the first time in more than seven years.
According to a Chronicle review of federal documents, state inspectors collectively spent just 400 days in 2009 inspecting a network of 110,000 miles of pipes. That was the lowest rate of any state.
In 2006, federal officials warned the state that its low number of inspections jeopardized public safety. State inspections have increased since then, but still have not been enough to meet federal guidelines.
In an interview, Padilla said, “Californians deserve better than just meeting the basic minimum requirement. Clearly, we are finding out that CPUC oversight leaves a lot to be desired.”
He said he has yet to receive a response from Clanon. “A lot more needs to be done and should be done in short order,” Padilla said.
Commission officials said they intend to respond to Padilla, but declined further comment.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, said he too favors more inspectors. But he wants the cost to be paid through fines against utilities or other methods, rather than by taxpayers or utility customers.
“They need to staff up – they shouldn’t necessarily be waiting for a budget miracle,” Leno said. “Some fines levied on PG&E could take care of the funding gap.”
PG&E estimates explosion could cost $1 billion
November 5, 2010
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. says the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion could wind up costing the utility $1 billion.
PG&E revealed in a regulatory filing Thursday that the cost of repairing the devastated neighborhood, compensating victims, inspecting its pipes and other expenses could reach $550 million. Replacing valves on those pipelines is expected to cost $450 million.
Costs for proposed major renovations to the utility’s gas network haven’t been calculated.
The Sept. 9 blast killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes.
PG&E to move pipeline that exploded in San Bruno
October 28, 2010
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. says it will move a segment of gas transmission pipeline that exploded in San Bruno when it gets rebuilt.
PG&E President Chris Johns said in a letter sent to San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane that the city has “our commitment that PG&E will not rebuild the damaged section … in its current location.”
Eight people died after a segment of gas pipe ruptured and exploded on Sept. 9, destroying dozens of homes. Federal investigators are still determining the cause of the blast.
The letter does not identify where, exactly, the new segment will be built. But Johns’ letters says the company will work closely with the city to identify a new site for the pipeline.
Most PG&E pipes at risk; welds before 1970 out of date
By Eric Nalder
San Francisco Chronicle
October 24, 2010
As much as two-thirds of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s network of major natural gas pipelines is vulnerable to failure because it was made before 1970, using welding techniques that have been outmoded for four decades, a Chronicle investigation shows.
Federal regulators warned pipeline companies more than 20 years ago to reconsider use of all pipelines older than 1970 — which include the transmission line that exploded last month in San Bruno — that were built with a lowerquality welding technique widely used in that era. By then, the flawed welds had already contributed to more than 100 failures of natural gas transmission pipelines, records show.
The government did not require that companies replace the old pipe, however, mandating only that operators inspect lines in populated areas for problems.
The state’s other large natural gas utility, Southern California Gas Co., has a similar amount of aged pipeline as PG&E — but unlike PG&E, it embarked on an aggressive retrofitting program in recent years that has enabled it to make wide use of better inspection technology to check for hazards, according to data provided by the companies and interviews with experts. Now, in the wake of the Sept. 9 explosion of the pipeline in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes, PG&E is confronting a backlog of pipe modernization projects that could prove expensive for the company and its customers.
The problems with pre-1970 pipelines are welds on the seams that seal the spine of the pipe. The culprit was a welding technology — known as low-frequency electric resistance welding — that could allow the pipe spine to rupture more easily, especially when it has been weakened by corrosion or a nearby dent. The National Transportation Safety Board reported in 1987 that weld failures on hazardous- liquid pipelines had contributed to at least 12 deaths from 1968 to 1986. Liquid lines experience more failures because of fatigue caused by frequent pressure changes, but gas lines aren’t immune.
The PG&E pipeline that ruptured in San Bruno was installed in 1956, according to the utility. That means it almost certainly had the type of welds that were the subject of the federal warning — according to regulators, nearly all transmission pipes built in that era had such welds.
The federal safety board, which is leading the investigation of the San Bruno disaster, says it has not ruled out a split in a pipeline seam weld as a possible cause.
Nearly 3,850 miles of PG&E’s transmission pipes statewide date from before 1970, federal and company records show. That’s 67 percent of the utility’s total of 5,778 miles in Northern and Central California.
PG&E’s vice president for pipeline operations, Kirk Johnson, said that “age itself is not a concern.” The more important issue, he said, is how a company maintains its pipelines.
“The condition the pipeline operates in, whether the ground is stable, the environment or construction methods that may have been used at that time, those are the big concerns,” Johnson said.
Professor Jim Liou, a University of Idaho expert on pipeline leak detection, said that age is indeed an issue. “It is almost like asking, will an old car be more likely to break down than a new car?” he said.
The solution to the weld problem has been a federal requirement for close inspection, and replacement of pipeline where necessary. But PG&E is using an inspection method on most of its pipes that is inferior for spotting faulty seam welds, according to documents and interviews with experts.
The method experts recommend for inspecting seam welds in the field is a “smart pig,” a torpedo-shaped tool that courses down a pipe examining it with methods such as ultrasound. But to allow their use, pipelines built before 1970 must be retrofitted at considerable expense because they have too many sharp turns, constricting valves and other obstacles that hinder the smart pigs. PG&E says it has used smart pigs to inspect only 21 percent of its transmission pipes in high-risk populated areas. The San Bruno pipeline that exploded was among the segments that could not be inspected using the devices.
Southern California Gas, the state’s other large gas utility, said it is using smart pigs on 80 percent of its highrisk pipes, even though federal records show its pipe inventory is slightly older by percentage than PG&E’s. Southern California Gas has been aggressive in converting its pipeline to use smart pigs, although geography and topography make the task easier there. The Los Angeles-based company serves more customers but has fewer total miles of transmission pipe than PG&E.
Southern California Gas field services Vice President Bret Lane said it is “fair to say” that seam welds are a major consideration when inspecting pipe built before 1970. His company takes a “conservative approach” and is replacing suspect pipe, he said.
Because welding techniques have changed so radically, “the welds done today, you really don’t worry about,” Lane said.
PG&E declared Oct. 12 that it will undertake a transmission pipeline modernization project, but did not give cost estimates. When company President Chris Johns was asked about the scope of the upgrades, including pipeline replacement or retrofitting to allow the use of smart pigs, he provided few details except to say there will be studies.
The cost of replacing extensive amounts of pipeline, however, could be prohibitive. Just 30 miles currently on PG&E’s books are priced at $94.6 million.
“Everybody has to recognize that the cost will be borne ultimately by the ratepayers, by the consumers,” said Andrew Lu, director of operations safety for the American Gas Association, a nonprofit trade group representing intra-state pipeline operators including PG&E.
Two pipeline failures in 1986, one of which led to an explosion that killed two people, alerted federal regulators to the dangers of older pipelines. The accidents shared a common cause — the failure of the welds that knitted together the longitudinal seams of the pipes when they were manufactured in the 1950s, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Office of Pipeline Safety.
When the Office of Pipeline Safety searched its records, the agency found 275 similar pipeline failures over the years, including 103 in natural gas lines. Ninety- five percent of the failed lines were made before 1970.
The agency issued a warning to pipeline operators in 1988 that proposed a dire solution: “These recent failures have caused OPS to re-evaluate the safety of continued operation” of all pre-1970 pipelines with the out-of-date welds.
The government never ordered widespread replacements, but a second warning in 1989 revealed more failures.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Office of Pipeline Safety disagreed over a solution, with the safety board recommending that operators make blanket inspections at regular intervals, and the pipeline safety office rejecting the idea.
Congress passes law
Major changes didn’t occur until a pair of pipeline disasters in 1999 and 2000 killed a total of 15 people.
Spurred by those tragedies, Congress passed a law in 2002 adopting a blanket inspection approach, although it limited the requirement to populated areas.
Pipeline operators must inspect all transmission lines located in populated areas before the end of 2012.
“As pipelines get older they tend to degrade, and you really want to be sure what the condition of the line is,” said Robert Eiber of Columbus, Ohio, a pipeline integrity consultant with half a century in the business.
Several experts who were interviewed said smart pigs are the most effective of the three main inspection methods approved by the federal government, because they examine the inside of a pipe over its entire length.
A second method, hydrostatic pressure testing, uses water or other liquid at high pressure. It is usually impractical for a natural gas utility because it requires that the line be taken out of service entirely.
The third method approved by the federal government — known as “direct assessment” — involves records research, probes and spot checks of a pipeline exterior. This is the method that PG&E used to inspect the San Bruno pipeline, most recently in November 2009.
“Direct assessment is kind of like a spot check along the line, and in-line (pig) inspection is doing the whole thing,” Eiber said.
“Smart-pigging has been very effective in determining the location of failures,” said pipeline division Chief Bob Gorham of the California fire marshal’s office, which oversees inspections for pipelines that carry hazardous liquids.
Under a 1981 state law and standards set by the fire marshal’s office, inspections on hazardous- liquid lines must be done using smart pigs or hydrostatic pressure testing. Since such tests began, Gorham said, leaks have decreased to nearly zero.
PG&E, however, has so far used smart pigs on only 156 miles of the 737 miles of high-risk pipeline it has inspected, just 21 percent, according to company spokesman Joe Molica.
Fourteen miles were done with hydrostatic tests, and the remainder, 567 miles, with direct assessment.
Southern California Gas is almost exactly the reverse. Because of its pipe-retrofitting program, it has used pigs on 632 miles of the 787 miles of pipeline it has inspected, or 80 percent, according to company spokeswoman Denise King.
PG&E has deferred the replacement or retrofitting of many of its old pipes, some of which date back to the Great Depression.
That’s despite risks with those pipes that PG&E has described as “unacceptable” for a variety of reasons, including age and earthquake vulnerability.
For example, PG&E isn’t scheduled to begin replacement work for three to five years on a 1930-vintage pipeline that runs from an area east of the Monterey Peninsula Airport to Salinas. The line crosses the San Andreas Fault, has been damaged twice by landslides and has what the utility describes as “poor quality welds” and outdated valves.
One section of 62 year-old pipe that PG&E said in March was at an “unacceptably high” risk of failure was in South San Francisco, just 3 miles north of the San Bruno blast site on the same 30-inch pipeline. A small portion of the pipeline was scheduled for a $5 million replacement three years ago. But the project was deferred until 2013.
PG&E’s Johnson said the utility delayed the work after doing a reassessment and finding that the pipe “was in much better shape” than it had first believed.
Another transmission line running from Livermore into Fremont and Milpitas has a dozen miles of pipe installed in 1930 that have been on the company’s Top 100 list for replacement for two years. The pipe will not be fully replaced until 2015 under the current schedule.
Molica said PG&E has been converting 3 to 5 miles of pipe each year to make them piggable. It plans to convert 117 additional miles in the next few years, he said. Eiber said it was impractical and even unnecessary for a utility to replace all its old pipe. Some old pipe may be in mint condition, he said.
The key, Eiber said, is using proper inspection techniques, most notably smart pigs.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety engineer in Redmond, Wash., said converting more of PG&E’s lines to make them piggable is “not going to be cheap.” But it is a solid move toward safety, he said.
“There’s a point where you just want to go to the new technology, and go ahead and replace the pipe,” Kuprewicz said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Oct. 6 that deaths caused by pipeline failures had increased from eight in 2008 to 14 in 2009. That’s bad news for an industry that touts pipelines as the safest way of shipping hazardous materials.
Switching a hard sell
Despite the aging infrastructure, persuading pipeline operators to switch out large volumes of old pipe remains a hard sell.
Terry Boss, vice president for safety and environment of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, recalled his reaction to the initial Office of Pipeline Safety suggestion made two decades ago that pipelines built before 1970 be replaced. “I would probably classify it as someone saying you can’t drive any cars that are built before 1970,” Boss said.
San Bruno Fire Panel Questions PUC Enforcement
By Marisa Lagos
San Francisco Chronicle
October 20, 2010
State lawmakers grilled California regulators and utility officials Tuesday over whether they had done enough to ensure the safety of a natural gas pipeline that exploded in San Bruno last month, killing eight people and destroying 37 homes.
The six-hour, sometimes-contentious hearing was aimed at examining the safety of gas pipelines in the state, but focused nearly entirely on the San Bruno explosion.
During the most heated exchange of the joint committee hearing, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shasta (Kern County), challenged California Public Utilities Commission officials. He demanded to know why the agency had failed to follow through with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to make sure the utility upgraded the 30-inch, high pressure San Bruno pipeline that exploded on Sept. 9.
Florez and other senators noted that a section of the pipe a few miles north of the explosion site had been identified as far back as 2007 as in need of repairs on a list of PG&E’s top 100 priority projects, and that the PUC in 2008 approved the utility’s request to conduct a $4.9 million upgrade on the line. It was in a group of projects listed as part of a rate increase request.
PG&E, however, instead spent the money on other projects and asked for approval of $5 million more to fix the pipeline in 2009. The repairs were not conducted, and by this year, the line had fallen off the top 100 list.
“Did PUC ever do any accounting as to why PG&E didn’t spend the $5 million?” Florez asked. “Do we just give them money and cross our fingers and hope they fix it. Is that what we do at the PUC? … Until some terrible tragedy occurs?”
Purpose of the list
Richard Clark, director of the PUC’s consumer protection and safety division, explained that the top 100 list created by PG&E is part of a larger litigation process that occurs when the utility is asking to increase rates. The list, he said, is meant to identify general areas of concern and convince regulators that a rate increase is warranted – not tie the utility’s hands if another, more urgent project arises.
“What we do is create rules and make sure they abide by them,” Clark told the committee. “My understanding is that (the $5 million) was used on another, higher priority project … it’s up to them to manage the money and make sure it’s used to improve the riskiest sections.”
PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon also stressed that the section of pipeline where the explosion occurred was not on the list, and had never raised any red flags. And Kevin Johnson, PG&E’s vice president of gas operations, said that the utility determined during a physical inspection two years ago that the pipe was safe to operate until at least 2013.
Both men stressed that the cause of the San Bruno explosion has not yet been determined.
Lawmakers, however, said the PUC should be more involved in reviewing PG&E’s priorities when the utility asks for rate increases, particularly when projects fall off the top 100 list.
“I think we’ve identified one red flag already,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima (Los Angeles County), who co-chaired the hearing with San Francisco Democrat Sen. Mark Leno. “At this point, you are letting the utility unilaterally decide when these projects become more important from one year to the next.”
Later, Clark told The Chronicle that the PUC is reviewing its procedures in light of the San Bruno incident and that the issue of closer scrutiny of utility priorities is “certainly on the table.”
Lawmakers also questioned why the PUC has not finished its inquiry – or made a final determination on whether to assess fines and penalties – in a fatal gas explosion that occurred nearly two years ago near Sacramento. Federal officials completed their investigation last year into the 2008 Rancho Cordova incident, which killed one man, and determined that it was caused, in part, by PG&E’s failure to act on previous safety warnings.
A Chronicle review this month found that the PUC has not levied a single fine against PG&E over the past six years for violations of natural gas safety laws, even though the utility racked up more infractions than the rest of the state’s major pipeline operators combined.
Leno said that “given there was a death involved and fault determined,” in the Rancho Cordova incident, “I don’t know what greater priorities” the regulator would have than to complete its own investigation.
“We were slow and we should have been quicker,” said Clanon. “I don’t know what else to say.”
But he defended the lack of fines, saying regulators “want to make sure that when a utility sees a safety violation on its own, it has every incentive to report it.”
Senators also heard from some of the San Bruno homeowners who lost properties, and a woman whose daughter was killed in the blast. They pleaded for investigators to get to the bottom of what caused the explosion.
“I have lost something irreplaceable – the love of my precious daughter,” said Rene Morales, whose 20-year-old daughter, Jessica, was killed in the explosion. “I will never recover from this loss, ever. … Nothing can bring her back, but I do want to be part of the solution.
“I welcome the investigation and hope and pray we can learn what we need to, to make changes so this never happens again to other families.”
Reported leak rate for PG&E’s ‘high-consequence’ gas lines far exceeds national average
The company whose pipeline exploded into a fireball in San Bruno this month has reported leaks at a rate six times the annual average for other large pipeline operators, data analyzed by The Times show.
By Rich Connell, Doug Smith and Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
September 27, 2010
The operator of a Bay Area gas pipeline that exploded in a lethal firestorm earlier this month has reported leaks on similar lines in populated areas at a rate more than six times that of other large pipeline systems across the country, according to a Times analysis.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has reported 38 leaks since 2004 along about 1,000 miles of line it controls near population centers or environmentally sensitive resources, federal records show.
The utility’s leak rate was 6.2 annually per 1,000 miles of transmission pipes serving “high consequence” areas — more than six times the average leak rate for the nation’s six other large operators.
Federal regulators have stressed that the number of transmission line leaks reported nationally in populated areas has declined more than 30% in recent years. But PG&E reports show an opposite trend, with average yearly leaks climbing some 40%, from 4.7 to 6.7.
The state’s other large operator, Southern California Gas Co., reported leaks at a rate of 2.3 per 1,000 miles. Large operators are those with at least 500 miles of “high-consequence” pipelines.
In a written response to The Times, PG&E executives questioned the comparability of federal data because other utilities may differ in their surveying techniques and interpretation of reporting requirements. The utility also attributed its recent leak rates to a more rigorous reporting standard it adopted last year after consultations with federal regulators.
Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said this week that experts at the agency would review The Times’ findings.
“Assuming the numbers are a reasonable representation of the situation, obviously I and this commission would find them deeply disturbing,” he said. “They may indicate a more systemic problem at PG&E.”
Peevey said he was particularly surprised that The Times found PG&E was reporting nearly three times as many leaks as the state’s other big natural gas supplier, SoCal Gas.
Determining the cause of the blast in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco, is expected to take months as experts pore over records and conduct sophisticated forensic examinations of the ruptured pipe, including a large section blown out of the ground in the explosion. Seven people died and more than 50 homes burned down or were heavily damaged. Preliminary estimates of losses from the fires have been set at $65 million.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced sweeping legislation to strengthen oversight of natural gas pipelines and establish penalties for violating federal regulations. The San Bruno blast has also raised questions about PG&E’s operations and triggered debate over an array of broader issues, including the wisdom of allowing homes to be built close to potentially hazardous pipelines.
The leading causes of leaks reported by PG&E and other utilities with transmission pipelines in high-consequence areas have been equipment problems and corrosion, records show. Pipeline valves have been the most frequent equipment problem since 2004, PG&E said.
None of the leaks reported by PG&E came close in severity — or scale of losses — to the Sept. 10 San Bruno blast, one of the worst U.S. pipeline disasters in at least two decades.
The performance data analyzed by The Times was gathered by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to allow the public to assess the safety progress of specific pipeline systems. Inspection and public reporting regulations increased after a 2000 explosion of a 30-inch pipeline in New Mexico — the same size line that ruptured in San Bruno. The blast in Carlsbad N.M., killed 12 people.
A detailed analysis of leak reports is crucial to pipeline safety and risk management programs, said Brigham McCown, former head of the federal agency.
“Higher-than-average incidents may be indicative of a lax safety culture,” he said. “Incidents exceeding similar operators in the same area should always raise concerns, especially when those incidents are caused by an operator as opposed to third parties.”
Federal pipeline safety regulators say they do not compare or rank the performance of individual operators. A spokesman said regulators do monitor national trends and focus additional inspection oversight on systems with incident records outside the norm. In California, most of the pipeline inspection work falls to the state’s utility commission.
PG&E’s maintenance practices and leak management efforts are expected to be scrutinized by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the probe into the cause of the San Bruno explosion.
“They will pull apart and look at every aspect of operations,” said Kitty Higgins, a former NTSB board member. “To the extent there is a pattern, it’s an issue of what was done once there was a problem and what kind of follow-up action there was.”
The Times’ analysis reviewed more than 1,000 reports filed by large and small pipeline operators who control some 19,000 miles of gas transmission lines traversing the nation’s high-impact zones. Those lines, like the one that ruptured in San Bruno, move large volumes of gas under high pressure to massive webs of smaller lines that carry gas to homes and businesses.
Operators must report to federal regulators unintentional leaks and more serious incidents that include injuries, deaths, and property and fuel losses of more than $50,000. Operators also may report other incidents they deem significant.
Dozens of smaller operators across the country reported substantially higher leak rates than PG&E, in some cases potentially indicating serious problems. However, all but a handful of those had so few miles of pipeline covered by the reporting requirements that their rates were not statistically meaningful.
The data analyzed by The Times did not include detailed descriptions of the nature of the PG&E leaks and incidents. But other reports filed with regulators and responses from PG&E offer some elaboration. For example, in 2005, a PG&E contractor working in Folsom was performing a liquefied natural gas injection test when equipment problems developed. The low-temperature gas caused a 10-inch steel pipeline to crack, a problem that cost $110,000 to fix. In 2007, a PG&E crew working at a compressor station in Avenal, Calif., mistakenly tapped into an operating pipeline, causing $122,500 in damage.
The utility said it has requested guidance from federal regulators to address what it sees as inconsistent leak reporting requirements.
Still, Najm Meshkati, a USC engineering professor who has served on federal pipeline and energy-industry safety panels, said The Times’ findings show that a closer examination of PG&E leaks is needed.
“It is a good indication you need to really look at the [utility’s] whole inspection system” as well as employee training, he said
“It’s like a patient with a temperature,” he said. “It doesn’t mean someone has a serious disease. But you need to look at other signs.”
PG&E releases maps of major gas pipelines and a list of problem segments
The utility acts after an explosion Sept. 9 killed at least four people. Corrosion is the top reason a pipe segment is listed, followed by concerns about ground movement and design characteristics.
By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
September 21, 2010
Acting to smooth its public image, the Bay Area utility whose natural gas pipeline exploded in a deadly fireball Sept. 9 responded Monday with a variety of disclosures demanded by residents, regulators and politicians, including the governor.
Top executives of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., owner of the transmission line that exploded 12 days ago in San Bruno, released maps of major pipelines in its Northern and Central California service area along with a list of 100 problematic segments.
“We are here today to begin the process of restoring trust in PG&E and PG&E’s pipelines,” said Peter Darbee, the president of the regulated utility’s parent.
At the same time, the San Francisco-based company announced that it was making the same information available to the public via its website so customers and officials have a better idea of how the 5,700-mile system operates.
In a conference call with reporters, PG&E executives also said they have opened a hotline — (888) 743-7431) — where people can find out whether they live within 500 feet of a gas transmission pipeline, particularly those on the Top 100 list.
“I want to assure the public that the list is not of pipelines that are at risk or dangerous,” California Public Utilities Commission Executive Director Paul Clanon said in a statement. He said the list “is a tool” used to prioritize maintenance, repair or monitoring of pipelines.
The most common reason a pipeline segment made the list was its potential for corrosion, followed by concerns about ground movement, such as vulnerability to earthquakes and landslides. Physical and design characteristics were the third most common reason.
The section ranked No. 1 is northeast of Cordelia in Solano County.
A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last Friday publicly asked PG&E to divulge the information, said he was pleased with the utility’s speedy compliance.
Matt David, the governor’s communications director, called on the state’s other big natural gas suppliers — Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.— to do the same thing.
“Just like PG&E, they owe it to the first responders and residents to get this information out there to prevent another incident like San Bruno from happening, if that’s possible,” he said.
Executives with the Gas Co., which operates a combined system with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., said the utility has not compiled a pipeline repair list similar to PG&E.
“If we identify a threat to the integrity of a pipeline, we take immediate steps to repair or replace it,” said spokesman Raul Gordillo. At the same time, he said, the company is making progress complying with a federal mandate to inspect its transmission lines and has completed an initial assessment of 892 miles of its 1,100-mile system.
PG&E also is inspecting its pipes and at a rapid pace since the blast in San Bruno that killed at least four people and destroyed 37 homes, said utility President Christopher Johns. Since the incident, PG&E reduced pressure in all three lines serving the heavily populated San Francisco region, Johns said.
PG&E surveyed about 200 miles of local transmission lines, began an aerial check of more than 5,000 miles of pipelines throughout Northern and Central California and is getting ready to perform “manual walk-throughs and leak surveys” on the entire transmission grid.
“Unfortunately,” Johns noted, “still pending is the answer to the other big question of what caused the tragic events to occur” in San Bruno.
The segment of the 54-year-old, 30-inch diameter pipe that failed in San Bruno was not on PG&E’s Top 100 list, Johns said. The cause, he said, must still be determined by investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pipeline valve maps missing in action
Willard H. Wattenburg, Sfgate.com
Monday, September 20, 2010
The San Bruno pipeline explosion and other recent PG&E gas line ruptures have shown that first responders do not have the information – maybe not even the training – to shut off gas pipelines as quickly as they should. The danger and damage go up with each second of delay in shutting off the gas flow.
It is outrageous when PG&E workers and firefighters in any local area do not have in hand for immediate use accurate maps of all shut-off valves for all gas pipelines in their area. They should never be studying a confusing and unfamiliar map while an inferno rages nearby.
I inspected and measured the electrical characteristics of many gas and water lines during the “blue water” crisis in Contra Costa County in 1991. Many hard-working PG&E servicemen assisted me. They often expressed frustration when I asked: “Show me the location of the valve to shut off this line – right now.”
It will be many years before our aging pipeline system is upgraded. Utilities cannot stop the inevitable corrosion of steel pipelines – or even predict accurately where it is happening. But they must be prepared to minimize the consequences when there is an emergency.
The governor should demand – today – that:
— All pipeline utilities demonstrate that their workers and first responders have in hand accurate maps of all the shut-off valves – and that they have periodic training in their operation.
— State and local inspectors (fire departments) have the right to demand proof of disaster preparedness on a periodic basis. Inspectors should be able to go to any area at random and ask the utility to demonstrate how long it takes to shut off the gas line servicing that area.
Gas pipeline valves are every bit as important as fire sprinkler valves inspected by fire departments.
If pipeline utilities say they have done the necessary emergency planning and preparation, then I will be happy to go in the field and show the public and the state otherwise.
The California Public Utilities Commission should have ordered this years ago, but I doubt this comfortable agency has a clue. In this modern age, we should expect utility workers to have pipeline valve maps immediately available to them on their smart phones.
Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg is a senior research scientist at the Research Foundation, California State University Chico. He is a former professor of electrical engineering at UC Berkeley and a former staff member at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is also the host of the talk-radio show “The Open Line to the West Coast” on KGO radio in San Francisco.
Bay Area News Roundup
Local news all the time
Monday, September 20, 2010
A San Bruno man is suing Pacific Gas and Electric Company for repercussions from a gas pipeline explosion that tore through his neighborhood Sept. 9, his attorney said Saturday.
Steve Dare, a resident of San Bruno, rents a home that was near the explosion of a natural gas pipeline that destroyed at least 37 homes on the evening of Sept. 9.
Neither Dare nor his home were injured in the blast, but he had to evacuate for several days, according to his attorney William Audet.
Audet filed a lawsuit against PG&E in San Mateo County Superior Court with the intention of seeking damages for all residents impacted by the explosion.
He added that the class action suit seeks to create a fund of up to $100 million, which PG&E has pledged to help the victims, into a court trust account.
“The problem now is the lack of transparency with respect to the overall distribution of the funds,” Audet said. “We think that this would remove any problems with conflicts with PG&E’s own agenda.”
In addition to the fund, PG&E President Chris Johns said PG&E has already presented San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane with a check for $3 million to help cover the costs of responding to the disaster and to “rebuild the parks, rebuild the streets, rebuild the sidewalks.”
The company also will be issuing checks of up to $50,000 to individual households affected by the explosion and fire.
San Bruno gives the lie to PG&E’s commitment to safety
There’s ample evidence that the utility places customer and community service low among its priorities, and corporate responsibility even lower.
Michael Hiltzik, latimes.com
September 19, 2010
Peter Darbee, the outstandingly complacent chief executive of PG&E Corp., has long made it a talking point that safety is his No. 1 concern.
“Ensuring the safety of our employees and the public” is “our most important priority,” he wrote in the company’s 2009 “corporate responsibility report.”
But PG&E, the state’s largest utility company, makes a habit of leaving things at the talking-point stage. The grim harvest of its failure to supplement lip service with action is currently visible in the devastated families and homes of San Bruno. That’s the Bay Area community where a natural gas pipeline, the maintenance of which is indisputably PG&E’s responsibility, blew up Sept. 9.
Fair-minded people, and certainly PG&E spokespersons, will say that assigning blame for the disaster is premature until its cause becomes clear, which may not happen for weeks. They’re not wrong, exactly.
But it’s not premature to examine PG&E’s management culture and connect the dots to the San Bruno disaster. There’s ample evidence that the company places customer and community service low among its priorities, and corporate responsibility even lower.
PG&E is, however, very good at producing elegant four-color paeans to its “commitment” to its communities and customers. If gloss and elegance were all it takes, PG&E would be one of the most admired corporations in California, instead of one of the most detested.
Let’s look at the record. Exhibit 1 is its campaign this year for Proposition 16, a constitutional amendment PG&E concocted specifically to enhance its monopoly position in its service region but marketed (quite fraudulently) as merely an expansion of the “right to vote.”
PG&E spent $46 million on this frolic. The ballot initiative was defeated. The biggest margins against it came from voters in the utility’s service districts, underscoring the wisdom of the adage “familiarity breeds contempt.”
Darbee, the debacle’s godfather, has been paid nearly $30 million over the last three years. He appears unfazed by the resounding rejection of his commando raid on the state Constitution.
Before the election, he told Wall Street that, win or lose, there would be plenty of time to “mend any broken fences.” After the election, he said he recognized that “it’s important to really reach out to people and to work constructively with them and engage in an ongoing constructive dialogue … we have been doing that.”
Darbee seems to consider the sum he spent on Proposition 16 to be trivial, and the infection it caused the political process transitory. He may be about to learn that the damage it caused to PG&E’s credibility as a public-spirited corporation was profound and lasting.
“Never has one company spent so many millions to burn so many bridges,” Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a San Francisco utilities watchdog, told me.
Is the PG&E board happy with Darbee? The company’s 11 outside directors hold a total of 15 other directorships and four high-level executive posts, by my count, so maybe they’re just too busy to pay attention. If they ever get around to it, they might ask whether he is really the right person to be in charge.
The Prop. 16 campaign is only one indicator of the company’s wretched culture. There’s its approach to community choice aggregators, a special form of municipal utility created to provide energy from renewable sources. (Killing off CCAs was the chief goal of Proposition 16.) PG&E’s marketing campaign against CCAs has been so underhanded and improper that the state Public Utilities Commission twice wrote the company to warn it was breaking the law and had better knock it off.
PG&E seems to be a lot more casual about performing urgent maintenance on its system than it was about the needs of the initiative campaign.
During the campaign season, PG&E let few fortnights pass without replenishing its war chest, adding seven-figure sums, or more, eight times from January through May.
Has it shown as much solicitude for a section of natural gas pipeline in South San Francisco it has ranked among its “top 100 highest risk line sections”? The 1.42-mile section is about a mile and a half from the blast site. The utility said in a public filing that “the risk of a failure at this location is unacceptably high.”
Yet PG&E has had the devil’s own time coming up with the $5 million needed to repair the line, even though it identified the line as high risk in 2007 and got approval from the PUC to replace it at ratepayers’ expense in 2009. Now it’s planning to get around to the job in 2013.
“PG&E certainly can’t say, ‘We don’t have the money to do it,’ ” said Toney, whose group drew attention to the matter last week.
Northern and Central California ratepayers have learned from bitter experience not to trust PG&E. One data point comes from the company’s disastrous rollout of “smart” gas and electrical meters starting in 2007. The installation of the meters, which give almost minute-by-minute readouts of power use, led to an explosion of complaints about mysteriously soaring electric bills.
An independent study commissioned by the PUC found that the meters worked fine, but the same couldn’t be said for PG&E’s customer-service reps.
The study found that the reps “lacked professionalism” in dealing with customers, which makes them sound as if they were about as polite as your average rent collector. They often failed to follow up on complaints and consistently treated complainants as “wrong, until the customer(s) proved … that they were right.”
That last point is interesting in light of some San Bruno residents’ claims — unverified at this point — that they had reported gas odors to PG&E days or weeks before the explosion, and that PG&E failed to respond.
Since the election, Darbee has tried to burnish PG&E’s community responsibility cred by coming out against November’s Proposition 23, a sleazy oil-industry initiative that would eviscerate California’s pioneering anti-greenhouse gas program. Yet thus far, according to state campaign finance disclosures, PG&E’s donations to fight Proposition 23 add up to … hang on while I do the math … zero. More lip service?
PG&E said for the record that it “will not waver in its support of San Bruno.” It said it’s committed to “supporting” full recovery of the neighborhood and assuring the safety of its gas pipelines. PG&E’s record suggests that this is largely PR. In solidarity with this huge utility’s suffering clientele, I can only say, please, prove me wrong.
Gas Explosion Prompts Scrutiny of PG&E’s Profits
By ELIZABETH LESLY STEVENS and KATHARINE MIESZKOWSKI
New York Times, September 18, 2010
Pacific Gas & Electric enjoys a near monopoly over 70,000 square miles of Northern and Central California, with 15 million customers.
The California Public Utilities Commission allows the company to charge rates 30 percent higher than the national average. As a regulated utility, the publicly traded company’s shareholders benefit from a guaranteed 11.35 percent return on equity, which is also above the industry average of about 10.5 percent.
Yet, when PG&E stumbles, the customers largely foot the bill.
PG&E’s guaranteed profits have come under scrutiny following the Sept. 9 explosion of a company gas pipeline in San Bruno. As investigators examine why the rupture occurred, PG&E’s ratepayers — including those returning to the badly damaged neighborhood — are most likely to bear much of the cost, according to state regulators and utilities analysts.
“They get their cake and eat it, too,” said Cheryl Cox, policy adviser at the Division of Ratepayer Advocates at the utilities commission. “The ratepayer is responsible at any cost to make sure the utility remains financially healthy and keeps the lights on. We watched the financial debacle with the banks, and that is basically what we have here.”
PG&E is “too big to fail,” she said.
Consumers were already paying for repairs that were to have been performed on a segment of the pipeline a few miles from the section that exploded, documents show. PG&E told the state utilities commission in 2007 that the section had an unacceptably high risk of failure. Those repairs have not been made.
Customers, who already bear the cost of the company’s $17 million insurance premium, will also most likely bear a good portion of its $10 million insurance deductible arising from the San Bruno explosion, according to a state utilities commission attorney.
Peter A. Darbee, the company’s chief executive and a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, said in an interview that he was not prepared to discuss the explosion’s financial impact on PG&E.
“This has been a tragic and horrific experience for the residents of San Bruno,” Mr. Darbee said. “I have been focused on that tragedy, how we can help the people of San Bruno, how to ensure the safety of our pipeline and how best to respond to the authorities involved.” He added that the company has reviewed the overall system and not found anything to cause concern.
Last Monday, Mr. Darbee and other PG&E executives appeared at a San Bruno firehouse to announce the establishment of a $100 million fund to help those affected by the explosion. That sum will not be billed to ratepayers. “We are demonstrating accountability,” Mr. Darbee said.
PG&E was formed in 1905 as a consolidation of smaller power companies that had sprung up in the settlement boom after the gold rush. Under the regulatory compact that applies to all publicly regulated but privately owned utilities, PG&E has been granted a practical monopoly to provide a public service to any customer who wants it. In exchange, it agrees to rate regulation that includes a guaranteed rate of return.
The relationship between the utility, its regulator and customers is complex.
The arrangement essentially allows PG&E to “privatize profits and socialize costs,” said Todd L. Rydstrom, chief financial officer of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, a public, nonprofit utility that provides water to 2.5 million customers.
That gives PG&E a guaranteed stream of profits while the company bears almost no financial risk, Mr. Rydstrom said.
PG&E has lost $1.2 billion in market value since the explosion. Hugh Wynne, a senior analyst at Bernstein Research, said he believed that the market had overreacted and that the stock would recover. He said he believed that the actual cost of the disaster would be closer to $500 million.
C. Lee Cox, PG&E’s chairman, concurred that the financial impact on the company would not be severe. In an interview, Mr. Cox expressed confidence that the utilities commission, which is participating in the investigation, would not punish the company in future rate negotiations.
“I haven’t ever seen this regulatory commission not do something in the long-range best interests of customers,” Mr. Cox said. To punish the utility “just out of anger, it is hard for me to envision that,” he added.
The next multiyear rate agreement, now being negotiated, will take effect in 2011. PG&E has requested a $1.1 billion revenue hike. In 2009, its revenues were $13.4 billion.
The company’s ability to pass on its operating costs is “just kind of how the system is,” said Julie Fitch, director of the state regulatory commission’s energy division. If the regulated utility is not guaranteed an attractive-enough return, then there is a risk that it will not invest enough capital to maintain and grow the system, which is central to the health of the area’s economy.
However, “if PG&E knowingly did something improper,” Ms. Fitch said, the commission could fine the company. In the absence of that, she added, ratepayers pay for the company’s costs now, and presumably in the future.
Since the explosion, much of the attention has been on the 54-year-old pipeline that ruptured beneath San Bruno. Consumer-safety advocates have raised questions about whether the pipeline’s age may have played a role in its failure.
Pipeline safety has not been a primary focus for state regulators. “During the entire six years I was at the P.U.C., we talked about a lot of things, but we didn’t talk, to my memory, to any extent about pipeline safety,” said Geoffrey Brown, who served as a public utilities commissioner from 2001 to 2007.
Mr. Brown is a first cousin of Jerry Brown, California’s attorney general and the Democratic candidate for governor.
“The type of inspections that are going to be required are going to be beyond what PG&E or any of these utilities have done in the past. The ratepayers would have to pay for that,” Geoffrey Brown said, adding that ratepayers would also have to pay for accelerating replacement of pipes.
Mr. Darbee said that given PG&E’s size, with assets of $45 billion, any additional infrastructure spending precipitated by the San Bruno explosion would most likely be difficult to see. “I don’t think it will be discernible to a customer in the bill that they receive,” he said.
The company was already having a rough year.
It spent almost $50 million in support of Proposition 16, a June ballot measure that would have made it difficult for local governments to start or join a public power agency. Publicly owned power companies compete with PG&E for customers.
Although opponents of Proposition 16 spent barely $100,000, the measure was nonetheless defeated amid criticism that PG&E was using the ballot box to restrict competition.
“I think that mistrust of PG&E is at an all-time high,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, an advocacy group.
State Senator Mark Leno, a Bay Area Democrat, said he planned to introduce legislation that would prevent a utility from seeking a rate increase to cover expenses incurred from a catastrophic event caused by improper maintenance.
Mr. Leno said the utility had little incentive to keep infrastructure in good repair.
“There will only be an incentive to maintain the system properly when the utility knows it may face the wrath of its shareholders if there is system failure,” he said, “because shareholders rightfully expect that the rates consumers are paying are sufficient to keep the infrastructure intact.”
San Bruno blast: Locating pipelines difficult
Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Lee Liu peered out her back window and sighed. She’d just learned from a reporter that one of the natural gas pipelines considered most urgently in need of upgrading in the Bay Area runs behind her Fremont home’s backyard.
After seeing a week’s worth of news coverage of the gas explosion inferno in San Bruno, she had unhappy visions.
“I was wondering if there were any pipelines around here, but I had no idea who to call,” said Liu, whose home on Via San Dimas lies near Interstate 680 and Mission Boulevard. “I thought I’d call PG&E, but it’s always too much time and trouble to wait through their voice mails and try to get a real person.
“So I guess I’m just scared.”
She’s got a lot of company these days.
People who were rattled by the Sept. 9 San Bruno disaster and want to find out if there are potentially explosive pipelines under their neighborhoods have a tough task of sleuthing ahead of them. Most of the information is out there, if they hunt and push hard enough – but that information reveals only so much.
Databases, maps and help lines are available through national and state agencies as well as Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the main supplier of natural gas in Northern California. But there are too many kinds of gas lines from too many companies, and too many security concerns, for any one person to get locations easily, experts and public officials say.
Quest for answers
“Everyone is asking where these pipelines are, and the answers aren’t easy to get,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer organization. “Customers can’t wait years or months for that information. We need a better system.”
Worrying about what can go wrong can become quite involved for those who care to look at what lies beneath their feet.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, California has 122,217 miles of liquid and petroleum pipelines crisscrossing its towns, fields and mountains. To find out where these are, the central source of information is the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration’s national map of major pipelines. The map gives a general idea of where the lines are, but it doesn’t show detail street by street.
Also on this website is a list of companies – from Shell in Martinez and Chevron in Richmond to PG&E and more – that run those lines, with contact numbers.
PG&E has a toll-free phone line that customers can call: (800) 743-5000.
If you do, “you’ll get a letter telling you roughly how close you are to a gas transmission line, and then refer to the national (pipeline safety administration) map,” said PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.
“For safety and security reasons, we cannot provide a more detailed map than that.”
Call before digging
In Northern California, people can also dial 811, which connects to a service that can locate whatever company or agency owns a pipeline that runs through a property.
The catch is, the only people who are supposed to call it are those planning an excavation.
Don Heyer, a manager with USA North, which runs the 811 number, says even the national map and his service aren’t complete.
His company knows about 140 utilities, public and private, that run fuel lines. But his service deals only with pipes that run directly on a property, not near it.
For that, you have to go back to the national map – which Heyer says doesn’t list thin pipes that might be running gas or petroleum for a small operation.
You can always call such an operator – but you have to find out the company’s name first.
The line through Fremont is a foremost example of how little is known of what’s underfoot.
PG&E maintains a list of 100 high-priority pipeline projects in its 5,722-mile system in California that its managers have resisted publicizing for security reasons. The state Public Utilities Commission demanded the list Friday and says it will release it.
Documents already publicly available, however, show one of those lines is number 107, which runs from Livermore to Milpitas.
In Fremont, it snakes alongside Interstate 680 for a few miles on the eastern edge of town alongside or beneath leafy neighborhoods such as Liu’s, then cuts west to Interstate 880 before turning south.
Fremont Fire Chief Bruce Martin would like to know more about line 107, but even he is stuck wondering.
“The disturbing part is the classification of this pipe as high risk,” Martin said. “What does that mean – is it an imminent threat or just a maintenance classification? I just don’t know.”
So he tried the national pipeline map. And tried. The site has been overwhelmed with traffic – by the end of the week, it was still moving sluggishly or not at all.
Martin got his best information on where the line ran, and its history, by consulting city engineers – not the sort of thing most homeowners can do.
“Look, I’ve always found PG&E to be good to work with in the field, and they know we’re interested in answers,” Martin said. “I’ll just say it’ll be nice to know more.”
Martin said PG&E has promised him a meeting in the next two weeks.
San Francisco’s fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White, has had slightly better luck. She has already met with PG&E and said she was reassured to hear that most of its high-pressure gas lines in the city are under public rights of way, not private property.
The city’s elected officials were less pleased.
“San Francisco must receive a prompt and thorough accounting of the condition and safety of the natural gas infrastructure in our city,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said in a letter sent last week to PG&E President Christopher Johns.
Those who haven’t yet had briefings such as the one Hayes-White got are for now crossing their fingers and hoping the lines are as well maintained as PG&E’s managers have been insisting since the San Bruno blast.
“I was married to a cop, so I’ve learned that if you sit around and think of things that go wrong, you can go crazy,” said Brenda McCormick, who often stays at her boyfriend’s house in Fremont, next door to Liu’s. “Sometimes you just have to rely on the people who know what they’re doing. Have some faith in PG&E.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of pipeline incidents nationally that involved fatalities or serious injuries fell 24 percent from 2000 and 2009, to a total of 47.
In the Bay Area, the most recent high-profile accident involving gas pipelines was in 2004, when a backhoe operator punctured a high-pressure gasoline pipeline in Walnut Creek owned by Kinder Morgan. The explosion killed five construction workers.
In 1994, a surge accidentally activated by a utility worker on PG&E natural gas lines in Alameda sent flames roaring from heaters and stoves, burning 10 buildings and injuring two firefighters.
“Certainly, people should be concerned whenever they do an excavation in a pipeline area, and it helps to have lots of extras eyes out there in the public to guard against any significant accidents,” said Martin Edwards, spokesman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
“Accidents like the one in San Bruno are dramatic and tragic, but they are rare occurrences – very rare.”
Finding local gas pipelines
Options for finding natural gas and petroleum pipelines near where you live:
National map of major lines throughout the country: sfgate.com/ZKHR.
California government map of major lines throughout the state: sfgate.com/ZKHQ.
Locating lines if you are going to excavate on your land: Call 811 or go to usanorth.org.
PG&E information on whether there is a line near your home or business: (800) 743-5000.
PUC demands list of high-priority PG&E jobs
David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, September 18, 2010
California energy regulators ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on Friday to hand over a list of the company’s 100 most urgently needed pipeline repair projects, a list the utility has refused to release since a natural gas explosion leveled a San Bruno neighborhood.
The state Public Utilities Commission wants to see details on all the projects, including updates on their status and maps showing their locations.
The commission’s executive director also asked PG&E to explain why several planned upgrades to the 46-mile-long pipeline that ruptured Sept. 9 haven’t been completed.
PG&E executives have resisted public pressure to release the list, citing security concerns about revealing the exact locations of pipelines full of explosive fuel. But in an interview with The Chronicle on Thursday, the president of the PUC said he plans to make the list public. He also asked people not to panic if they find one of the projects in their neighborhood.
“None of those lines is in imminent danger,” said commission President Michael Peevey.
PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the company was still studying the commission’s letter.
Three Bay Area lines are known to be on the list – a portion of the pipeline that exploded that is a few miles north of the blast site, and segments of other lines in Fremont and Livermore.
The commission ordered PG&E to provide every version of the high-risk list from 2007 to the present, because the utility constantly revises the priority of its projects. The commission wants details on how PG&E evaluates the risks associated with different pipeline segments and how it ranks the priority of each repair project.
The commission also wants to know all of the repairs or upgrades that PG&E planned for the pipeline that exploded.
PG&E planned three years ago to replace the high-risk segment of the pipeline, located in South San Francisco, but never did the work. Instead, it spent the money on other projects.
More recently, the company planned to refurbish a larger segment of the line south of the blast site. Friday’s letter from the PUC asked PG&E to explain why it hasn’t done either project.
The PUC also expanded on instructions the commission already gave PG&E about replacing manual pipeline shut-off valves with ones that can be activated remotely or automatically.
The commission wants PG&E to identify locations where the older, manual valves can be replaced, come up with an estimated cost for the work and describe the pros and cons of automated valves.
When the San Bruno pipeline exploded, PG&E had to dispatch workers to drive to manual valves and turn them off, rather than being able to cut off the flow of gas automatically. The process took an hour and 46 minutes, PG&E says.
State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, a Democrat who represents San Bruno, said this week that having automatic valves on the pipeline could have lessened property damage and possibly saved lives.
In the end, 37 homes were destroyed and at least four people died. Three family members listed as missing are believed to be dead as well, their relatives say.
Gas odors before blast? More rumor than fact
Justin Berton, San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, September 17, 2010
For weeks leading up to the explosion and fire in San Bruno that killed at least four people and destroyed 37 homes, residents in the Crestmoor neighborhood were smelling natural gas and trying to get Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to do something about it, without success – or so goes a popular rumor.
Although the investigation is far from complete, no documented evidence has emerged to back up widespread media reports of Crestmoor residents having complained futilely of gas odors before a high-pressure PG&E pipeline ruptured Sept. 9.
PG&E officials say they have reviewed all calls from the Crestmoor area since July 1 and found only two involving leaks. Those dated from July were two to three blocks from the blast site and did not involve the transmission pipeline that caused the disaster, the utility said.
Feds find nothing
The National Transportation Safety Board, which asked anyone with tips about the blast to come forward, says it has received 90 e-mails – but only one from someone who reported having smelled a leak. That leak was fixed several weeks ago, investigators said.
The daughter-in-law of Elizabeth Torres, one of those killed in the disaster, said the 81-year-old resident of Claremont Drive was waiting for PG&E crews to arrive at her home the night of the explosion because her stove wasn’t working. The daughter-in-law, Teresa Whorton, says Torres told her she smelled gas, but it’s unclear whether she told that to PG&E.
PG&E spokeswoman Katie Romans would not say whether the utility had found a record of a service request for Torres.
A high-ranking San Bruno firefighter at a station near the Crestmoor neighborhood, which responds to all complaints of leaking gas in the area, told The Chronicle that his station did not respond to any such calls in the month before the disaster. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the department.
Determining whether residents smelled gas before the explosion is playing a critical role in the investigation, said Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the federal safety board.
If residents indeed smelled the odor, Hart said, that would indicate that there was a pinhole leak in the pipe. If no smell was detected, it might suggest the pipe suffered a catastrophic failure, a finding that would point investigators in a different direction.
Attempt to gain control
The widespread rumors about gas odors, and the apparent absence of confirmed complaints, fit into a familiar post-disaster narrative, said one expert who has studied the phenomenon.
“Survivors will immediately attempt to gain some control of the situation by reaching for the rumors,” said J. Steven Picou, a sociology professor at University of South Alabama who has analyzed residents’ reactions to Hurricane Katrina and the Exxon Valdez spill. “They’re shaken, disrupted, and everyone is talking about the event. It’s the perfect context for rumors and false information to run rampant.”
In extreme cases, bad information in disaster zones can delay emergency response times and cost lives.
Whipping up outcry
After Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, early media reports said angry residents were shooting guns from their rooftops at Coast Guard rescue helicopters, which the agency then grounded.
Six months later, Picou and investigators concluded the residents had indeed been shooting – in desperate attempts to alert the choppers of their location.
More often, as with the San Bruno explosion and fire, unconfirmed complaints merely whip up a public outcry, Picou said.
Hearing the rumors
The Chronicle interviewed more than a dozen neighborhood residents this week who live near the blast epicenter at Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue. All said they had heard the rumors of gas smells, but none said they had smelled anything themselves.
“I almost wish I could say I did smell it,” said Dennis Costanzo, who lives on Glenview six doors from the explosion. “That would explain a lot.”
None of the neighbors he has talked to detected any gas odor, he said.
Costanzo said he rode his motorcycle through the intersection of Glenview and Earl about 15 minutes before the pipeline erupted. “It’s always windy through there,” Costanzo said. “If it did smell of gas that day, it’d have to be strong.”
Nearby gas station
Fahed Salfiti, 52, who lives on Claremont Drive, 400 feet from the blast site, said he dropped his mail into a mailbox at the corner of Glenview and Claremont about an hour before the explosion and noticed nothing unusual.
“Now, though,” he said, “I wonder if I smelled something funny. I think I said to my daughter, ‘You smell that?’ and she said, ‘It’s the gas station’ ” – a reference to the Econo Mart filling station less than a quarter of a mile away on Glenview.
Tim Gutierrez, a 39-year-old resident who has appeared on several local and national broadcasts, told The Chronicle that he smelled an odor each day for three weeks before the explosion when he reached a stop sign at Sneath Lane and Claremont, about a quarter of a mile uphill from the blast site.
Gutierrez said he never thought to report the smell because he saw PG&E trucks in the area and figured they were working on the problem.
That intersection is 1,000 feet from the local fire station. Firefighters there interviewed by The Chronicle, who drive through the same intersection daily, said they never picked up the scent and did not recall seeing work trucks in the area.
One of the most-often interviewed residents after the disaster was Kathy Crouse, a retired American Airlines employee who described her front lawn as having been singed by persistent gas leaks and said “bubbles formed” when it rained.
Crouse lives more than half a mile north of the blast site, in a subdivision called Rollingwood. Her house is at least a quarter of a mile from the transmission pipe.
This week, Crouse was having her adult son search her name on the Internet when a reporter visited her home.
Crouse said the leaks were in her home’s line to the street, not the main transmission line. The leak was fixed more than five months ago, she said, and today her lawn is green.
Crouse said she was home when the explosion occurred. The first thing she did was reach for her cell phone, she said.
“I called Channel 5 right away,” Crouse said. “I wanted everyone to know a plane had crashed.”
San Bruno fire: Burn victims face long recovery
Victoria Colliver, San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, September 17, 2010
Serious burn victims, like those still hospitalized as a result of the San Bruno blast, can expect to endure multiple surgeries over the next several months followed by a rehabilitation period that could continue for a year or more.
No one knows that better than Lisa Nash, a 52-year-old Redwood City woman who was burned over 40 percent of her body in August 2005 when a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transformer exploded as she crossed Kearny and Post streets in downtown San Francisco.
Nash talked to the ambulance crew, sharing vital information such as her medications and husband’s phone number, but all she really remembers is waking up at St. Francis Memorial Hospital 2 1/2 weeks later. Doctors had placed her in a drug-induced coma to save her life.
“The moment of my explosion was probably the worst day of my life, but the moments after were probably the best,” said Nash, explaining how fortunate she was for ending up at St. Francis’ Bothin Burn Center in San Francisco, the largest and most specialized burn center in the Bay Area, where four of the most seriously burned victims of the Sept. 9 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno are being treated.
Hospital officials, citing privacy laws and the requests of family members, declined to identify the patients or their conditions other than to say they’re all in stable condition in what is expected to be a lengthy and complex recovery process.
Suffering major burns
Three of the victims have burns over 50 percent of their bodies, and a fourth has burns over 40 percent. One of the patients is Joseph Ruigomez, the 19-year-old who was badly burned while trying to rescue his 20-year-old girlfriend, Jessica Morales, who died in the explosion.
Four other blast victims were sent to San Francisco General Hospital, three of whom remain hospitalized.
One patient, described as a man in his 50s, is in critical condition while a woman in her 80s is in fair condition and a woman in her 60s has been upgraded from serious to fair. The fourth patient, a woman in her 80s, was released Wednesday in good condition, San Francisco General officials said Thursday.
Speaking in general terms Thursday to protect the patients’ privacy, Dr. Clyde Ikeda, Bothin Burn Center’s medical director, described what seriously burn patients typically endure.
During the first 72 hours, the burn center team’s goal is to stabilize the patient, making sure he or she can breathe and has enough fluids. The patient then moves to the second phase of treatment, which includes multiple surgeries to remove dead tissue and graft skin, said Ikeda, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon.
The San Bruno patients are now in this phase. Infection is still a threat, but surgeons may graft tissue acquired from any of a number of sources over the next several weeks. They look for unburned parts of the patient’s body, but could use skin from a cadaver or a pig. They may even take postage-stamp-size portions of the patient’s skin and grow samples in a laboratory.
The final phase, which starts around three months after injury and can last more than a year, may involve more reconstructive surgery, and will probably include physical therapy and psychiatric help. “As the patient emerges and their wounds heal, we become more aggressive in terms of getting them mobilized and returning them to society,” Ikeda said.
Trying to help others
Nash recovered for more than two months before receiving two years of outpatient physical therapy. She said she had to learn to walk and talk again because of the extent of her injuries.
Today, she looks virtually unscathed despite burns to her face and hands. On Thursday, appearing with Ikeda at a news conference, Nash said she would like to help the burn patients, when they’re ready, by sharing her experience in the same way she was encouraged by burn victims who visited her during her recovery.
Nash said one of the first things she did when she recovered was return to the site of the blast and stomp on the piece of metal that covered the transformer that blew up: “That was me saying, ‘Goddamn it, I’m back.’ ”
San Bruno is part of PG&E pipeline probe
David R. Baker,Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, September 17, 2010
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was concerned last year that liquids were corroding the metal in four of its Bay Area natural gas pipelines – including the one that exploded last week – according to a document obtained Thursday by The Chronicle.
“Significant amounts of liquids” had been causing corrosion and operational concerns in pipelines connected to a PG&E terminal in Milpitas, according to a document the company filed in September with the California Public Utilities Commission. The company wanted to spend $3.2 million installing “separators” at the station to keep the liquids out.
“These liquids present an ongoing concern for internal corrosion,” the document said.
Late Thursday, a PG&E spokesman said most of the liquids had been compressor oil, rather than water. The oil had been showing up in filters at distribution stations served by the pipelines.
PG&E installed the separators at the Milpitas terminal in November. The liquids haven’t appeared in the distribution station filters since then, said PG&E spokesman Andrew Souvall.
Investigators are already looking at internal corrosion as one potential cause for the Sept. 9 blast in San Bruno that engulfed a neighborhood in flames and killed at least four people. The commission, which is investigating the incident alongside the National Transportation Safety Board, is aware of concerns about liquids in the pipeline and will examine that in its investigation.
“That’s a piece of it, yes,” said commission President Michael Peevey.
Demand for documents
This week, the commission ordered San Francisco-based PG&E to produce all records related to work at the Milpitas terminal during this month.
Corrosion – typically caused by water, liquid hydrocarbons or microbes – is a constant problem for pipeline managers. A 2000 gas pipeline explosion in Carlsbad, N.M., that killed 12 people was caused by microbes building up inside the pipe and creating pits that weakened the metal.
“This document shows clearly that PG&E was alert to the problem,” said UC Berkeley engineering Professor Robert Bea, a former Shell Oil executive who now studies catastrophic engineering failures. The ruptured San Bruno line, he said, appeared in photos to have corrosion.
“The pictures I’ve seen clearly show internal corrosion,” Bea said, adding that he isn’t part of the investigation. “Now, whether or not it’s got pits that can turn out to be failure initiation sites, I don’t know.”
The condition of PG&E’s vast web of gas transmission lines has come under intense scrutiny since last week’s blast, with the utilities commission ordering PG&E to conduct a crash inspection of the entire system by Oct. 12.
Several state legislators have called on the utility to release a list of the 100 pipeline segments it considers to be at the highest risk for failure. The utility has so far refused, but Peevey said that the utilities commission would make that information public, perhaps as early as today.
He said that the list shouldn’t be grounds for panic. “None of those lines is in imminent danger,” Peevey said.
Documents unearthed by the media have so far identified four PG&E pipelines with segments that appear on the high-risk list:
— Line 132, the pipeline involved in last week’s explosion.
— Line 131, which runs from the South Bay to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
— Line 107, from Milpitas to Livermore.
— Line 108, from Manteca to Sacramento.
A PG&E document reviewed by The Chronicle on Thursday revealed a fifth pipeline on the high-risk list: Line 103, which serves the greater Salinas area. The line crosses the San Andreas Fault and was damaged by landslides in 1984 and 1998, requiring repairs each time. PG&E wants to spend $8.5 million replacing and relocating portions of the pipe, including the work in a list of projects included last year in PG&E’s most recent request for a gas rate increase. The utilities commission has not yet approved the request.
The presence of compressor oil in the Bay Area pipelines is unusual and appears to have been caused by a mechanical problem. Water and liquid hydrocarbons are far more common in natural gas pipelines. When they pool, they can lead to failure, said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline engineer and president of safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. in Redmond, Wash.
Standing water – left in pockets or voids where gas flow does not clear it – can be a breeding ground for microbes that attack metal. That in turn can lead to a problem known as microbiologically induced corrosion, or MIC.
“I don’t want to panic people, but if you’ve got MIC corrosion, you really want to pay attention – I’ve seen half-inch pipe-wall disappear in a year,” Kuprewicz said.
Pipeline managers can scrub out pockets of water or hydrocarbons with devices called “pigs” that move inside the line. Pigs can also be used to check for internal corrosion.
The segment of Line 132 that failed in San Bruno, however, had too many bends to accommodate a pig. Those bends can create voids where water can pool, leading to corrosion, Kuprewicz said.
Instead, the San Bruno pipeline segment was inspected through the use of much older technology that uses probes to check for corrosion by zapping the line with electric current. That test was last performed in November.
While investigators are looking at a number of possible causes, a consumer group put forward its own theory on Thursday, arguing that PG&E’s new SmartMeters may have sparked the explosion.
Californians for Renewable Energy reported that it had filed a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, alleging that the wireless transmissions from the meters, which measure electricity and gas use, could have created an electric current in the pipe, produced a spark and ignited the fuel rushing through line. PG&E insists that the meters, which have embroiled the company in a yearlong controversy over their accuracy, produce signals whose strength is comparable to those from a cell phone.
San Bruno fire: PG&E planned to fix nearby pipe
David R. Baker,Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. asked state regulators three years ago for permission to spend $4.87 million to replace a portion of the same natural gas pipeline that ruptured last week and set a San Bruno neighborhood on fire.
The 1.42-mile portion to be replaced ran beneath South San Francisco, a few miles north of the blast site. PG&E considered the segment a risk.
Then last year, PG&E proposed upgrading another stretch of the same pipeline, this time starting about 8 miles south of the blast site and running all the way to Milpitas, about 32 miles away. The work would cost about $13 million.
Neither project has come to fruition. The South San Francisco project was moved down the priority list and the money spent elsewhere, and the southern project is still pending approval from state regulators. And now some observers wonder if the utility missed a chance to spot flaws in the pipeline that could have contributed to the Sept. 9 explosion, which killed four people, left three missing and destroyed 37 homes.
“If they’d fixed the section they said they were going to fix, maybe they would have found something a few miles south – we don’t know,” said Mike Florio, senior staff attorney for The Utility Reform Network.
On Wednesday, Florio’s group released documents showing that PG&E planned to replace the South San Francisco portion of the aging pipeline as far back as 2007. The new pipe was to be installed by October 2009.
The work was included in a list of projects that PG&E submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission to justify a rate-hike request related to natural gas transmission and storage. The commission approved the request, and the project’s price became part of the rates that PG&E customers pay.
But then, the same project reappeared last year in the utility’s latest natural gas rate request, which has not yet been approved by the utilities commission.
This time, the company wanted $5 million for the work. A PG&E document submitted to the commission described the pipeline as one of the company’s 100 riskiest, with a “potential impact radius of 415 feet,” if it failed.
“Coupled with the consequences of failure of this section of pipeline, the likelihood of a failure makes the risk of a failure at this location unacceptably high,” the document said.
In the 2009 rate-hike request, PG&E also proposed upgrades to a larger stretch of the same pipeline farther south. The improvements – including the replacement of 2,138 feet of line – would let the company use an automated device known as a “pig” to inspect for flaws in the pipeline’s interior, records reviewed by The Chronicle show.
PG&E wanted new valves and other modifications that would allow pigs to probe several sections of the line running through highly populated areas, allowing the utility to “focus on specific segments of the pipeline with the greatest amount of risk and mitigate the risks in the most economically feasible manner.”
Neither proposed project covered the stretch of pipe that ultimately ruptured.
PG&E officials have said that they externally inspected the San Bruno segment of the line in November and March and found no problems. However, investigators have said that the area of the blast could not be checked by an automated pig because of the size and contours of the line.
“It wasn’t piggable,” said Peter Knudson, spokesman for the NTSB.
TURN sees the delay in replacing the northern section of pipe as part of a larger problem at PG&E.
The company, Florio said, has a history of deferring repairs and using maintenance money for other purposes. In one infamous case, a 1998 report from the California Public Utilities Commission found that the utility had taken $77.6 million that was supposed to be spent trimming trees near power lines – a vital step in wildfire prevention – and used it to boost corporate profits instead.
“The conclusion is they’re putting profits before customer safety,” Florio said.
A PG&E spokeswoman, however, says the company spent more money than planned on gas pipeline maintenance in the last two years, although she did not have precise figures. Spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said PG&E allocates the money to the projects that need it most, and the priority of projects is constantly shifting.
The South San Francisco segment of pipeline underwent an external corrosion assessment in 2009, she said. Based on that study, the utility decided other natural gas projects should take precedence.
“Based on that – the most recent and up-to-date assessment and the reassurance that provided – we rescheduled this project,” Liebelt said. “We are committed to performing the work necessary to ensure the safety of our gas transmission system.”
The utilities commission gives PG&E that leeway. Although the company submits lists of projects to justify its revenue requests, PG&E is free to use the money on other projects.
“They’re going to be on the front lines of assessing the risks,” said Cheryl Cox, a policy adviser with the commission’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates. “They can move those funds to something they think has a higher priority.”
PG&E’s spending priorities have become a touchy subject. The company currently has a rate request pending before the utilities commission that would raise its revenue by $4.2 billion over the next three years. The commission is expected late this year to vote on that request, which is separate from the natural gas rate request.
Critics, including many government officials, also questioned the company’s spending priorities this spring when PG&E poured $46 million into an unsuccessful attempt to pass a ballot measure that would have limited the ability of cities and counties to form public power projects. Utility representatives say that money came out of shareholder profits, not customers’ monthly bills.
With the investigation into the San Bruno blast continuing, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got his first look at the neighborhood devastated by the ensuing fire.
The governor, returning from a trade mission to Asia, flew into San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday afternoon and was taken in a black SUV through the devastated neighborhood, then to the corner of Earl and Glenview avenues – near the crater caused by the explosion – where he was briefed by emergency officials before speaking to reporters.
Schwarzenegger offered prayers for those who lost relatives, friends or homes, and praised Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who served as acting governor in his absence, as well as firefighters and police, for their quick action responding to the explosion and fire. He said he was kept abreast of the disaster and spoke to President Obama from China, asking for a federal emergency declaration.
Schwarzenegger promised he would get answers to many of the questions swirling around the blast and that those answers would be made public – perhaps within days.
“I will make sure I get every single detail of information, and I will share it with you because you have the right to know what went wrong and why it went wrong,” he said. “Believe me, within the next few days you will be getting information.
“I’ll be back – and you will get the information.”
PG&E: One-quarter of high-risk lines not assessed
By GARANCE BURKE, Associated Press Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010
(AP) — The company whose ruptured gas pipe set off an inferno that killed four and torched suburban homes near San Francisco has yet to fully inspect all its high-risk gas lines coursing through the state’s urban regions.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has not assessed baseline safety and corrosion conditions on a quarter of the 1,021 miles of pipeline classified as needing stricter inspections, spokeswoman Katie Romans said Thursday.
PG&E would not say where those high-pressure lines were located, citing security concerns.
Investigators are still trying to determine why the San Bruno pipeline exploded last week, igniting a gigantic fireball so intense it cracked fire engines’ windshields and broke a water main, leaving all hydrants in the area dry. At least four people died and nearly 40 homes in the bedroom community were destroyed in the blaze.
In the wake of the tragedy, California regulators say they and federal authorities may ask PG&E to hasten inspections so more is known about potential safety threats.
“They need to go out and see what they’ve got,” said Julie Halligan, deputy director for consumer protection and safety at the California Public Utilities Commission. “Whether or not they speed up is one of the ideas.”
Regulations put in place after several gas pipeline accidents a decade ago require oil and gas companies to inspect the integrity of pipes in densely populated areas.
Those inspections, which are conducted by the companies themselves, began in 2002 and are supposed to be completed by 2012.
PG&E is on track to finish assessing all its high-pressure transmission lines by then, Romans said, but that still leaves 270 miles across California that haven’t been fully inspected.
Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, said that left too many unknowns.
“It’s inadequate, and it’s inappropriate,” Garamendi said. “The question is where is the next San Bruno going to be. It’s not just California, it’s not just PG&E, this is a nationwide problem.”
The Obama administration is seeking to tighten oversight U.S pipelines and more than double penalties for some safety violations. Legislation sent to Congress on Wednesday would pay for an additional 40 inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.
Under the current system, PG&E surveys and patrols its own lines for leaks and potential safety threats, and classifies which pipelines are listed as “high consequence areas,” which therefore merit the full inspections, called baseline assesments.
Four leaks and five failures were found on the 750 miles of transmission pipeline inspected thus far, Romans said. Failure can include things like nicks in the pipeline wall, she said.
After blast, states wait to act on aging gas lines
By JASON DEAREN, Associated Press Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010
San Bruno, Calif. (AP) — Some of Pennsylvania’s natural gas pipelines are 120 years old. Portions of lines also date to the 1800s in Massachusetts. And hundreds of miles in New York state are made of leak-prone cast iron.
Tens of thousands of miles of pipelines that run beneath communities nationwide are old or decaying, and an Associated Press survey found that no states in the parts of the country with the greatest concentration of people and pipes have ordered a safety review in the week since a deadly explosion in California raised public awareness of potential problems.
Officials from Massachusetts to Texas say their inspections are adequate, and they are waiting for federal investigators to determine the cause of the Sept. 9 gas line explosion that killed four in San Bruno, Calif., before deciding what to do.
Consumer advocates and plaintiffs’ lawyers say the response fits a familiar pattern: Utilities and customers won’t pay the millions of dollars needed to replace corroded pipes, the lines fail and regulators act only after a disaster.
Massachusetts is ahead of most states, in part because it reviewed its system after several natural gas explosions during the winter of 2008-09.
About one-third of the state’s 21,000 miles of distribution lines are cast iron or bare steel. The cast-iron pipes were laid from the late 1800s to the 1940s and the bare steel between the 1930s to the 1960s.
Other states, however, are not acting as swiftly.
In Pennsylvania, the oldest pipes are 120 years old, and about 25 percent of its gas pipelines — including some serving Philadelphia — is made of unprotected cast iron and bare steel.
The system to replace them is inefficient and fraught with delays. Gas companies have to front the money to replace the pipes, and then petition state regulators for reimbursement. The process then gets bogged down.
To speed replacement projects, utility regulators are pressing state lawmakers to allow gas companies to charge customers more quickly. These charges would still require regulators’ approval.
In New York, where parts of its 50,000 miles of gas pipeline still include leak-prone cast iron, gas companies are on track to replace about 310 miles of the worst sections this year, state regulators say.
“It would be great if it could all be replaced immediately, but it is very expensive and would cause rates to rise dramatically,” spokesman James Denn said.
The AP also surveyed Texas, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Connecticut and Louisiana.
There are more than 2 million miles of pipelines across the United States, and upgrading them is an enormous task, starting with determining the worst sections. Because regulators rely heavily on reports from utility companies themselves, critics say, it is impossible to gain an accurate picture of just how decrepit the system has become.
On Wednesday, after the Obama administration called for tougher oversight of the nation’s pipelines, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said federal regulators are too accepting of industry assurances.
Chris Hogan, a spokesman for the American Gas Association, the industry trade group, said that utility companies already spend billions every year to keep the network of gas pipes safe, and that more inspectors and harsher fines won’t improve safety.
The last significant reforms for the industry came in 2002 — and only after several high-profile accidents in Texas, Washington and New Mexico killed a combined 17 people. That’s when mandatory inspections were first required for transmission lines that go through densely populated areas.
Federal inspectors are responsible for interstate pipelines. Local regulators oversee intrastate lines and in most cases leave inspections to utilities. Regulators monitor and ensure that companies are keeping up with maintenance and identifying old pipes.
Utilities usually pass on those costs to customers through increases in their monthly bills.
“The audits and inspections are designed to make sure that they’re keeping up with the repairs, despite the fact that they have a financial incentive to put it off,” said Julie Halligan, deputy director for the consumer protection and safety division of the California Public Utilities Commission.
A lawyer representing victims of the San Bruno blast has a name for it: “running to failure.”
Mike Danko, who won a case against Pacific Gas & Electric after a deadly gas line explosion in 1992 in Santa Rosa, said utilities use equipment until it fails because it’s cheaper than preemptively replacing miles of pipes.
“They run the equipment until it fails and then deal with it,” he said. “That high pressure gas line in San Bruno was 60 years old. Do you have to be an engineer to figure out it needs to be replaced?
“They’re concerned about profits, and they’re going to run to failure, and that’s the opposite of a company having a culture of safety.”
PG&E says it is committed to conducting the inspections and maintenance required to assure the safety of its transmission system. Company spokeswoman Katie Romans said Thursday that the utility has yet to fully inspect all its high-risk gas lines coursing through the most densely populated regions of the state.
One-quarter of the 1,021 miles of high-pressure pipes classified as needing stricter inspections haven’t been assessed, she said. PG&E would not say where those high-pressure lines were located, citing security concerns.
When the gas companies do inspect the lines for any corrosion — the second most common cause of pipeline incidents behind excavation — they send a robot, called a “pig,” into the pipe.
The robot ranges in size from several feet to more than 10 feet long and comes in a variety of diameters to fit different sized pipes. It is propelled by the oil or gas streaming past. Data is then analyzed.
“Pigging” is cheaper and faster than other approved methods, such as excavating dirt to perform eyeball checks.
The high-tech methods can be particularly useful in the East, where utilities don’t have to dig up streets in densely packed towns and cities to get access to the pipelines.
In San Bruno, the pipeline was laid years before the neighborhood was settled. PG&E crews could not “pig” the segment of the 30-inch diameter steel pipe that exploded because the robot could not navigate a curved stretch.
Instead, last November, PG&E used a method where a low electrical charge is pulsed through the pipe and corrosion is identified by changes in the signal.
The company did not release the test results because they are part of the NTSB investigation, but it has said there was no indication before the explosion of any problems with the pipe.
While federal investigators determine whether corrosion or something that could have been missed by PG&E inspectors played any role in the blast, other states are holding fast to their system.
Brent Campbell, director of Louisiana’s Pipeline Safety Division, said regulators there would assess their system after the NTSB determines a cause in California.
“Right now, we have a very thorough inspection process and we’ll continue with that,” he said.
Pipeline fix was planned – but never happened
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Three years ago, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. asked state regulators for $4.9 million to replace a portion of the same natural gas pipeline that ruptured last week and set a San Bruno neighborhood on fire.
State regulators agreed, and the work was scheduled to be done in 2009. The price became part of the rates all PG&E customers pay.
But the pipeline replacement – in South San Francisco, a few miles north of last week’s blast site – never happened. And now PG&E wants an additional $5 million to do the same job, according to PG&E documents released today by a consumer group.
“If they’d fixed the section they said they said they were going to fix, maybe they would have found something a few miles south – we don’t know,” said Mike Florio, senior staff attorney for The Utility Reform Network, which released the documents.
PG&E did not respond to a request for comments by press time.
The documents illustrate a problem that has long infuriated PG&E critics.
The company has a history, they say, of deferring repairs and using maintenance money for other purposes. In one infamous case, a 1998 report from the California Public Utilities Commission found that the utility had taken $77.6 million that was supposed to be spent trimming trees near power lines – a vital step in wildfire prevention – and used it to boost corporate profits instead.
Florio said it’s often hard to track where money not spent on deferred maintenance goes. But PG&E, he said, had to spend $103 million in the last three years redoing a leak-detection survey of its natural gas distribution network that had been marred by record falsification and sloppy work. The company also spent, last year, about $62.5 million more than anticipated on employee bonuses, he said. Perhaps some of the money, Florio said, went there.
“The conclusion is, they’re putting profits before customer safety,” he said.
After blast, DOT seeks tougher pipeline oversight
By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
WASHINGTON (AP) –The Obama administration called for tighter federal oversight of oil and gas pipelines Wednesday in the wake of a deadly California gas explosion that raised alarms about the safety of the nation’s aging infrastructure.
In the meantime, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said the federal agency responsible for the regulation is too accepting of assurances from industry that its equipment and practices are safe.
Deborah Hersman’s comments echoed what safety advocates have long called for — a pipeline agency that needs to be less cozy with industry and staffed with more inspectors to enforce stricter regulations.
They welcomed the Obama plan, but said it fell far short of addressing the problems facing the nation’s millions of miles of pipeline.
“It’s the low-hanging fruit,” said Rick Kessler with The Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash., advocacy group. “There’s no increase in mileage of pipelines that must be inspected, there’s no standards for technology for inspections or repairing pipelines.”
“If this is a starting point, fine. If this is all the administration has to say, it is wholly inadequate,” he said.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration is directly responsible for inspecting interstate pipelines, and has only 100 inspectors to do it. Oversight of intrastate lines is left to local regulators, who have in most cases left the inspections to utilities.
Hersman said the NTSB, which is investigating the California blast and two other pipeline accidents, is concerned that PHMSA relies too heavily on documents submitted by the companies it regulates, rather than its own on site verification of practices and procedures.
“We want PHMSA to be on the ground doing the inspections,” Hersman said. “We think it’s PHMSA’s responsibility to trust but verify.”
Federal investigators said they were examining whether Pacific Gas & Electric workers followed proper emergency procedures after a gas transmission line exploded into an inferno that killed at least four people and destroyed nearly 40 homes in a San Francisco suburb.
PG&E has said the pipeline, built in 1956, had to be shut down manually because it was not equipped with automatic shut-off valves.
The pipeline administration is the latest agency that lawmakers and safety advocates say have become so close to an industry it regulates that it has lost sight of the safety mission.
Two years ago, Congress held extensive hearings on reports by Federal Aviation Administration whistleblowers who said inspectors were allowing airlines to fly passengers on planes without complying with safety directives.
Two scathing federal inspector general reports on the Minerals Management Service highlighted drug use and sex among drilling agency employees and industry executives during the George W. Bush administration. It also said drilling regulators had accepted gifts and trips from oil and gas companies and negotiated to go work for the industry while overseeing it.
The Obama administration plan sent to Congress would increase from $1 million to $2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm related to oil and gas pipelines.
It also would pay for an additional 40 inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.
Yet progress toward tough new laws is unlikely any time soon with Congress in election-year gridlock. Some earlier proposals to improve pipeline safety have languished on Capitol Hill over concerns by energy companies.
The White House proposal follows several accidents, including an oil spill from a pipeline owned by a Canadian company near Marshall, Mich., that sent an estimated 820,000 to 1 million gallons spewing into the Kalamazoo River in late July. Another spill from a pipeline by the same company, Enbridge Inc., was reported within the last week in suburban Chicago.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the DOT “needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation’s pipeline network.”
PHMSA, which regulates the transportation of hazardous materials, falls under LaHood’s responsibility as part of the Transportation Department.
PHMSA employees told lawmakers last year that during the Bush administration the agency was effectively run by a handful of lobbyists.
“When the (Obama) administration took office, PHMSA was a disaster of its own — it’s been that way for some time,” said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which held a hearing Wednesday on the Michigan oil spill.
Congress is expected to recess for midterm elections within the next three weeks, making it unlikely a bill could be enacted within the next two months. Oberstar said he wants the proposal at least approved by the pipeline subcommittee by then.
“I do think there is urgency,” Oberstar said.
Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari told the committee he would have liked more time to craft the legislative proposal but wanted to get something to lawmakers as soon as possible.
The department’s proposal would eliminate exemptions from safety regulations for pipelines that gather hazardous liquids upstream of transmission pipelines, DOT said.
It also would authorize PHMSA to collect additional data on pipelines, including information on previously unregulated lines, the department said. And it would provide for improved coordination with states and other agencies on inspector training and oversight of pipeline construction and expansion projects involving both gas and hazardous liquids pipelines.
There is no cost estimate yet for the proposals, Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosely said.
Pipeline safety experts characterized the administration’s proposal as a step in the right direction — but maybe not enough.
“It’s good to give them an extra club if they use it,” said pipeline engineer Richard Kuprewicz, whose company, Accufacts Inc., offers pipeline safety consultations to communities.
“They may issue a half-million dollar fine, but there’s an appeal process and in the end it can be a real small number,” he said.
The department is also crafting new regulations to enhance pipeline safety, including requiring emergency flow restricting devices on some pipelines and changing the distance between valves, Porcari said. The regulations would be separate from the legislative proposal.
The department is also considering extending “high consequence area” designations to additional stretches of pipeline, Porcari told the committee. Regulations put in place after several gas pipeline accidents a decade ago require oil and gas companies to inspect the integrity of pipelines in densely populated areas. Those inspections, which are conducted by the companies themselves, began in 2002 and are supposed to be completed by 2012.
PG&E remains powerful despite rough year
David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, September 16, 2010
This has not been Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s year.
Even before one of the utility’s gas pipelines exploded last week, incinerating a San Bruno neighborhood, PG&E’s relations with government officials and the public were strained.
The San Francisco company spent $46 million trying – and failing – to pass a ballot measure this spring that would have limited local governments’ ability to set up their own utilities and compete with PG&E.
State regulators, who usually maintain a collegial atmosphere with the utility, clashed with PG&E over its efforts to undermine the Marin Energy Authority, a new public power project that PG&E bitterly opposed.
Complaints mounted about the accuracy and safety of PG&E’s wireless SmartMeters, and a growing number of cities and counties called for a moratorium on their installation. A state-ordered investigation called the meters accurate but blamed PG&E’s customer service representatives for unprofessional conduct in handling SmartMeter complaints.
Now, the fatal explosion of a PG&E pipeline has further dented the company’s image, even as the cause of the blast remains under investigation.
Critics hope the explosion will force California energy regulators to take a firmer stand toward the company, which they say has often received kid-glove treatment from the state government. Some also want to see a change at the top of the company itself.
“I don’t understand how Peter Darbee continues to be where he’s at,” said state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, referring to PG&E’s chief executive officer. “I’m not sure, from a shareholder perspective, how much more rope Darbee has. I think at the end of the day, the best thing he could do for the company is step down.”
Major change unlikely
But Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County), and other PG&E opponents may be disappointed.
Financial analysts say the company may face closer scrutiny from regulators, but they don’t expect wholesale change. And they doubt Darbee’s job is in jeopardy. Darbee is both the CEO and president of PG&E Corp., the utility’s parent company, and also chairs the company’s board.
“From a bondholders’ perspective, you cringe every time there’s a misstep,” said Philip Adams, senior bond analyst with Gimme Credit, an independent credit research firm. “But you still fundamentally believe that a company that has an exclusive franchise to provide this service and earn a reasonable rate of return – they ought to be able to perform.”
A PG&E spokeswoman declined to comment for this article, other than saying that the company is focusing all of its attention on helping San Bruno.
PG&E remains a presence in Sacramento, spending more than $2 million on lobbying during the current legislative session, according to state records. The company spent $243,641 lobbying the California Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory agency that sets PG&E’s rates. And in Washington, PG&E has poured nearly $44 million into lobbying this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wall Street has taken note of the San Bruno disaster but seems to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude until the company’s financial liabilities become clearer. PG&E stock dropped 8 percent the day after the explosion, closing Friday at $44.21. Since then, however, it has regained most of the ground it lost, closing Wednesday at $45.48.
As a regulated utility that operates as a monopoly throughout much of California, PG&E is financially stable in a way that few businesses are. It survived bankruptcy during the California energy crisis of 2000 to 2001 and will survive these latest blows as well, analysts say. The company made a solid $1.23 billion profit last year, despite the recession.
“There’s a tremendous amount of resilience in the financials of a regulated utility,” Adams said.
Financial analysts and PG&E critics alike are waiting to see how the utilities commission handles PG&E’s latest rate-hike request, which would increase the company’s revenue by $4.2 billion over the next three years. The commission is expected to vote on the request late this year.
Consumer advocates have long complained that the commission gives the company most of what it wants in rate cases. But that could change.
In June, commissioners gave PG&E just 18 percent of the money the utility had requested for upgrades to its electrical grid. The decision came a little over two weeks after the defeat of PG&E’s expensive ballot measure, one that commission President Michael Peevey had publicly criticized. Commissioners said that if the company considered the upgrades a priority, PG&E should have spent money on them rather than on other things.
Last week’s blast could put pressure on the utilities commission to scrutinize the company and its requests more closely, financial analysts say.
“Historically, in the last few years, the regulatory environment has been very supportive for the utilities in the state,” said Paul Franzen, senior utility analyst at the Edward Jones investment firm. His company downgraded PG&E’s rating from “buy” to “hold” after the blast, largely over regulatory concerns.
“We felt there were enough questions on the table for us to say that the regulatory environment may be changing,” Franzen said.
Mark Leno pushes bill to make utilities pay
Thursday, September 16, 2010
A Bay Area legislator proposed Wednesday to require that a utility’s shareholders, not customers, pay the costs when its negligence causes an explosion or fire that destroys property.
“Ratepayers should not be on the hook to provide utilities with an open checkbook to cover excess expenses when catastrophic damages happen because the utility failed to do its job to protect the public,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
Leno said he will introduce a bill to prohibit a utility from seeking a rate increase to cover its uninsured costs from a fire or other catastrophic event that was the utility’s fault, as determined by regulatory agencies.
Requiring investors to bear those costs would “encourage the utilities to focus on maintenance and prevention, not post-disaster cleanup and excuses,” Leno said.
The state Public Utilities Commission is examining a proposal by California’s largest investor-owned power suppliers, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co., that would require a rate increase when the costs of reimbursing victims of wildfires exceed a utility’s insurance.
The plan would not apply to fires caused by intentional or reckless misconduct by utility managers, but would make customers foot the bill for company negligence – for example, faulty maintenance or overlooked signs of danger.
Although the utility proposal defines “wildfires” broadly, PG&E said Tuesday the cost-shifting plan would not apply to the Sept. 9 natural gas pipeline explosion and fire in San Bruno that killed at least four people and destroyed 37 homes.
The utility said it believes its $992 million in liability insurance will cover those costs, and that it would pay any uninsured costs under current PUC rules. Those allow the commission, appointed by the governor, to decide whether to bill customers or shareholders.
The PUC is scheduled to take up the wildfire rate proposal late next year.
San Bruno blast probe focuses on shut-off valves
Kevin Fagan,Demian Bulwa, San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Federal investigators and state legislators are zeroing in on whether inferior shut-off valves on the natural gas pipeline that exploded last week in San Bruno led to a deadlier, costlier disaster.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. managers say it took workers almost two hours to close the manually operated valves on the 30-inch-diameter pipeline that erupted, spewing a wall of fire into a suburban neighborhood. Now, some state officials believe those valves should have been automatically or remotely controlled.
If they had been, utility workers might have been able to stop the stream of natural gas in just a few minutes, they said, and lives and homes might have been saved.
Concerns about PG&E’s manual valves date at least three decades to a gas leak in San Francisco that led to federal calls for the utility to improve its system. The subject is sure to receive attention from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., as investigators struggle to find out why the pipeline suddenly blew on Thursday, killing at least four people and incinerating 37 houses. Three people are still listed as missing.
Lessons from 1981 rupture
“PG&E stated that part of the delay in turning the valves off is that … access was not easy under the circumstances,” said state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno. “That in itself demands that they have automatic valves in their system.
“Had they been in place, it would have prevented certainly property loss and possibly lost lives.”
In an interview with The Chronicle, Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, pointed to the agency’s report on a 1981 accident in San Francisco that put the utility on notice regarding shut-off valves.
Hart said investigators are examining the two valves used in the San Bruno disaster, both located at least a mile from the site of the explosion. The utility told the safety board that the fire was a factor in how long it took to shut the flow, Hart said, but he was not specific about what that entailed.
“To the extent there were time delays, (investigators will find out) what would be the cause of that,” Hart said. He noted that the fire happened during rush hour, and traffic congestion may have been a factor.
One of the valves is 1 mile from the blast epicenter, which was at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive, and the other was 1.5 miles away, Hart said. They’re in secured locations. To shut each valve, a worker needs a key to get into the area and then has to attach a handle to the valve to crank it.
By contrast, an automatic valve shuts after a system trigger, such as when there is a loss of gas pressure in a line. A remotely controlled valve can be closed from a location far from the valve itself.
In the 1981 disaster, an accidental rupture of a 16-inch natural gas main at a construction site at Sacramento and Battery streets forced 30,000 people to flee as the line spewed gas laced with toxic PCBs. It took nine hours to crimp off the flow of gas as workers struggled with manual valves – including one that had been paved over and made inaccessible, and another that didn’t work.
In an interview Tuesday, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said the initial explosion Thursday was enough to ignite most of the homes that were destroyed. When asked if some damage in the neighborhood might have been avoided if the gas were shut off earlier, he said, “Potentially, yes.”
Geisha Williams, PG&E vice president for energy delivery, told residents that the utility’s crews had worked urgently under arduous circumstances.
“It was a horrendous fire, and for a while we couldn’t get to the valves,” she said. “It took an hour and 45 to 46 minutes to stop the flow of gas.”
The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees PG&E, ordered the utility this week to inspect all of its pipelines in high-density areas and to assess which lines may need automatic valves.
Hill, D-San Mateo, said he is writing legislation to require the installation of automatic and remote shut-off valves on natural gas lines to “more effectively minimize damage if a future gas line explosion were to occur.” State Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat who also represents San Bruno, said he will introduce the same legislation in the senate.
The pair said they will also simultaneously develop bills to force PG&E to disclose its list of 100 high-risk pipelines in urban areas. The utility’s representatives have said security concerns limit their ability to reveal high-risk pipeline locations, but Ed Salas, a senior vice president, said they are working on a system to give customers location information.
In a 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation examining the feasibility of remotely controlled valves on natural gas pipelines, PG&E maintained that remotely controlled valves were better than manual ones.
Such valves offer a “major technical advantage by isolating (a) section quickly without dispatching personnel and knowledge of valve status,” the report said. It also noted that installing the valves would provide “major economic advantages (by) minimizing company liability.”
The report said “it takes at least 30 to 40 minutes to close a manually operated valve after a pipeline release whereas a RCV (remotely controlled valve) can begin closing in 10 minutes.”
Gas odors reported
Several residents have told media outlets that they smelled gas in days leading up to the explosion, and Hart asked that anyone with such recollection Tuesday to send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Hart said the information could help his team determine if the pipeline failed through a sudden, catastrophic rupture that then caught fire, or if the explosion came from a “pinhole leak.” In a pinhole leak, gas can seep to a separate location, where it can ignite and send flames back to the pipe, which then blows up.
A relative of Elizabeth Torres – who was confirmed Tuesday as the fourth fatality in the blast – said the 81-year-old woman was at home Thursday evening waiting for PG&E crews to check out her complaint of a gas odor. PG&E says it has found no records of leak calls in the blast area.
Mike Danko, an attorney in San Mateo who has sued PG&E several times over earlier gas-related issues, said pipeline fires can be started when a small leak travels along the pipeline onto smaller lines and then into a house. There, ignition can happen when a switch is turned on for something such as an air conditioner or a light. The fire then swiftly travels to the original pipeline leak.
San Bruno first responders put fears aside
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
As residents of a San Bruno neighborhood fled from a soaring pipeline blaze Thursday, others rushed toward the inferno.
There was Anthony Ottoboni, a firefighter from South San Francisco, who had been off duty at his son’s baseball practice. His wife heard the blast, looked at her husband and said, “Go.”
Ken Chetcuti, a South San Francisco police officer who grew up in San Bruno, drove toward the blaze thinking about all the friends he knew who lived near the fireball.
And Bill Forester, a San Bruno fire captain, rode in on an engine believing he was responding to the crash of a plane from San Francisco International Airport – or a terrorist attack two days before the anniversary of 9/11.
“Somebody said it was like they took a Saturn 5 rocket and turned it upside down,” Forester said. “Quite honestly, it was pretty scary.”
About 400 first responders – firefighters, police, paramedics and others – charged into San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood after a high-pressure Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas line ruptured, creating an inferno that killed at least four people.
They told their stories Tuesday as a group, gathering near the blast site.
It was, they said, a once-in-a-career incident that made them feel helpless at times – but one in which their disaster training and the concept of mutual aid paid off.
What they saw
The firefighters and police officers became aware of the blast in different ways. Forester was upstairs in a fire station when a woman ran in screaming. “We looked out and saw the fireball,” he said.
As the first responders entered the area, they saw chaos. San Bruno police Sgt. Mike Guldner said many people flooded out of the neighborhood that was engulfed in flames, but others moved closer, trying to get a better view or to take pictures.
“I realized immediately how overwhelmed we were going to be,” Guldner said.
At one fire station, burned residents were streaming in, said John Priolo, a San Bruno firefighter who had been off duty when the blast happened. Without enough ambulances, Priolo said, the firefighters asked able-bodied residents to drive those with the most serious burns to hospitals.
For about 20 minutes, Forester said, firefighters thought a passenger plane had crashed. The San Francisco Fire Department’s airport division asked those on the ground to look for a fuselage or wings.
When word came down that a pipeline had ruptured, he said, “that was a big sigh of relief.”
But there was also frustration, as the pipe blast had knocked out the water main that fed hydrants in the neighborhood.
“It’s a sinking feeling, to say the least,” Forester said. “You count on that water, and if there was ever a time you needed it, that was it.”
Firefighters finally laid down hose lines from hydrants that were blocks away, with neighbors helping out.
Chetcuti parked his car at the edge of the fire, spotted Guldner and asked him what he could do to help. Within moments, he teamed up with four others on an evacuation team.
“We got down there as close as we could,” Chetcuti said. “There was a sense of relief when (residents) saw us.”
Residents in shock
They knocked on doors and forced open others. Some people, the officer said, thought they had more time to grab belongings and keepsakes. They had little idea of the grave danger they were in.
On the other side of the fire, Ron Carlino had a similar experience.
The police lieutenant, who had been on duty as the watch commander for the South San Francisco force, was going door to door, entering smoke-filled homes to evacuate residents. People seemed to be in shock, he said, and “just felt like they wanted to grab anything. They didn’t want to leave empty-handed.”
Looking across the valley, he said, the fire and smoke obscured the other side.
“We could only go so far,” he said. “It was a helpless feeling knowing there were people we could not get to.”
The first responders made a point of saying they were awed by the response of ordinary people who helped. Some offered to hand over their vehicles – or their garden hoses – if needed.
In one instance, Guldner said he was able to leave a burned man in the care of an off-duty doctor and paramedic who appeared before him.
“We had everyday people running into houses helping us,” said San Bruno Officer Scott Rogge. “Those are the true heroes. We chose to do this. We do it every day. But those people really stepped up.”
San Bruno fire exempt from utility billing plan
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Tuesday that it would not take advantage of a utility-backed proposal that would saddle customers with uninsured costs from catastrophic fires to bill the public for last week’s deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.
However, PG&E did not rule out the possibility that its 6 million customers could be stuck with some of the bill. The utility said it will abide by the state’s current system, under which regulators decide whether customers or utility shareholders must pay for fire damage that the company’s insurance doesn’t cover.
The utilities’ proposal received its first airing Tuesday before a state Public Utilities Commission hearing officer in San Francisco. It would require that utilities be granted rate increases to cover uninsured costs of any wildfires they cause.
The proposal defines “wildfire” broadly to include any uncontrolled fire, urban or rural, that destroys homes or other buildings. A PUC attorney said Monday that the definition would cover Thursday’s explosion and fire in San Bruno, which killed at least four people and destroyed 37 homes.
But on Tuesday, PG&E attorney Lise Jordan told the commission’s hearing officer that the utility does not consider the San Bruno disaster to be a wildfire covered by the new proposal. Company spokesman David Eisenhauer elaborated afterward.
“We have no intention to seek any recovery of any (San Bruno) costs using this funding mechanism,” Eisenhauer said. “Those costs are covered by our general liability insurance.”
PG&E says it has $992 million in liability coverage for 2010-11. If that is not enough to compensate the San Bruno victims, or the victims of any similar incidents in the same period, Eisenhauer said, the utility will rely on the PUC’s current procedures, which allow the commission to decide whether to charge the costs to customers or shareholders.
A lawyer with the PUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which represents consumer interests before the commission, said the division still opposes the utility proposal on wildfire costs.
“We don’t think it is fair to ratepayers to be insurers of last resort,” the attorney, Jack Stoddard, said after the hearing. Utility shareholders, he said, “have to have skin in the game,” potentially exposing them to liability if the company neglects public safety.
Consumer organizations have also expressed opposition. Nina Suetake, lawyer for The Utility Reform Network, told the hearing officer that the PUC should reduce profit margins in the state-regulated rates of utilities rather than shift wildfire costs to customers, who already pay the companies’ insurance premiums.
Utilities argue that they need to spread safety-related costs among their customers because insurance is becoming more expensive and harder to obtain.
San Diego Gas & Electric Co. sponsored the current proposal in response to Southern California wildfires in 2007 that caused more than $1 billion in damage. State investigators found that sparks from the utility’s power lines had ignited brush, starting three major fires.
The utility said its insurance costs have more than quadrupled since the fires.
PUC hearing officer Maribeth Bushey scheduled five days of hearings in April 2011 for testimony by the utilities and their opponents. A session for public comments has not yet been scheduled. Lawyers said a PUC vote is at least a year away.
San Bruno blast: PG&E backs bid to bill public
Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
State regulators will take their first look today at a proposal backed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that would require customers to pay all costs of catastrophic fires, such as last week’s gas-line explosion in San Bruno, that exceed a utility’s insurance coverage.
It’s not clear whether the plan, if approved by the state Public Utilities Commission, would trigger a PG&E rate increase to help pay the utility’s cost from Thursday’s disaster. In a filing Monday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the utility said it has $992 million in fire insurance and a $10 million deductible, and “believes that most of the costs related to the San Bruno event will be covered.”
Even if the company has enough insurance, however, the proposal would make rate hikes more likely if PG&E caused fires in the near future.
Under current rules, utilities in California can seek a rate increase if the costs of a disaster exceed their insurance coverage. But the PUC can veto the request and force utility shareholders to pay the bill.
More than wildfires
The new proposal would require utility customers to bear the uninsured costs of catastrophic fires. It is titled a “wildfire expense balancing account,” but the application defines “wildfire” to include any uncontrolled fire, urban or rural, that is larger than an acre and destroys houses or other buildings.
San Diego Gas & Electric Co. introduced the proposal in August 2009 in response to fires in 2007 that caused more than $1 billion in damage. The utility intended to address “wildfires in Southern California caused by extreme weather conditions,” said a spokeswoman for the company, Stephanie Donovan.
But Nicholas Sher, a lawyer in a Public Utilities Commission staff division that opposes the plan, said the San Bruno explosion and fire “would fit within the wildfire definition.”
He also said the proposal would allow utilities to charge its customers for the costs of past fires – possibly including San Bruno.
A PUC commissioner and a hearing officer will preside over today’s session in San Francisco, the first step in a process that could lead to a commission vote next spring or summer.
PG&E and California’s other investor-owned utilities say the change is needed because disaster insurance is becoming more expensive and harder to obtain.
The proposal was “prompted by the utilities’ inability to obtain sufficient insurance at a reasonable cost” for wildfire damage, the utilities said in their application. Donovan said the San Diego utility’s wildfire insurance premiums rose more than 300 percent after the 2007 fires.
Opponents say the plan favors shareholders over customers and could increase the risk of fires by reducing utilities’ incentives to maintain safe conditions.
“Their profits are based on the fact that they incur some risks,” said Nina Suetake, a lawyer with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group. “It’s not fair to ratepayers that they make all this money … and the minute those risks occur, they come back to ratepayers.”
Michael Aguirre, a San Diego lawyer and former city attorney who is challenging the proposal on behalf of a local utility customer, said that “utilities need to reduce their risk profiles and not use ratepayers as insurers.”
No effect on liability
The PUC’s action on the proposal will not affect PG&E’s liability, up to the limits of its insurance coverage, for damage caused by Thursday’s explosion and fire.
Because gas transmission is legally classified as an “ultrahazardous” activity, the utility is responsible for all harm that it caused, even if it is not found to have been negligent, said David Levine, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
He said PG&E would have to reimburse insurance companies that are now arranging payments to families and businesses in San Bruno. The utility will be obliged to pay additional sums to residents, Levine said, including deductibles in their insurance policies and certain losses not covered by private insurance.
Some coverage may be disputed, Levine said, such as whether residents who were not injured can seek compensation for emotional trauma. But he said he expects all such issues to be resolved in a year or two.
Unlike some calamities, such as earthquakes, Levine said, “this disaster is heavily insured.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 13, 2010
CONTACT: PG&E Media Relations (415) 973-5930
PG&E Establishes ‘Rebuild San Bruno’ Fund
Uses Include Reimbursing City, Providing Residents Additional Immediate Financial Assistance
SAN BRUNO, Calif. – Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) today announced the creation of the “Rebuild San Bruno Fund,” which will make available up to $100 million for the residents and city of San Bruno to help recover from last Thursday’s tragic event.
PG&E Corporation Chairman, CEO and President Peter Darbee and Pacific Gas and Electric Company President Chris Johns met with San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane and San Bruno residents to announce the fund and pledge their commitment to rebuilding San Bruno, which includes covering the city’s costs associated with its response to the event.
“We know that no amount of money can ever make up for what’s been lost,” said Darbee. “This program is just one piece of our promise that PG&E will live up to its commitment to help rebuild this community and help the people of San Bruno rebuild their lives.”
To administer these funds on behalf of the company, PG&E will partner with government officials, community leaders and organizations, including the American Red Cross and the United Way, Bay Area.
Funds will be used to provide both immediate and long-term support to San Bruno residents and the city for three primary purposes:
- Ensuring that residents are reimbursed for costs or losses that may not be covered by their insurance.
- Providing additional direct immediate financial assistance, in the form of cash disbursements, to residents in the affected area.
- Reimbursing the city of San Bruno for costs it incurs to respond to this incident and to rebuild or repair public infrastructure and facilities.
PG&E today provided San Bruno officials with an initial check for $3 million to help compensate the city for its estimated expenses incurred to date. The company is also taking immediate steps to provide assistance to affected residents. For residents in the affected area, PG&E will provide disbursements of $15,000, $25,000, or $50,000 per household depending on the extent of damaged incurred.
Residents are not being asked to waive any potential claims in order to receive these funds. Also, these funds are being provided in addition to the company’s ongoing provision of funds to ensure affected residents continue to have access to temporary housing and other basic necessities.
“We are here today, and we’ll continue to be here,” said Johns. “We are going to be here as long as it takes and do whatever it takes to help the people and the city of San Bruno rebuild their lives and their community.”
PG&E, a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation (NYSE: PCG), is one of the largest combined natural gas and electric utilities in the United States. Based in San Francisco, with 20,000 employees, the company delivers some of the nation’s cleanest energy to 15 million people in Northern and Central California. For more information, visit//www.pge.com/about/newsroom/.
San Bruno blast: PG&E ordered to check pipes
Nanette Asimov, John Wildermuth,Demian Bulwa, San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, September 13, 2010
San Bruno — A state regulator on Sunday ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to check for leaks in all of its thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines, an effort to protect the public as federal investigators step up their probe into why a pipe in San Bruno ruptured and touched off a deadly blast.
The California Public Utilities Commission said it would direct PG&E to focus on high-pressure pipelines in heavily populated areas like the San Bruno neighborhood that erupted in flames on Thursday evening. The agency also told PG&E to detail how much it has spent to replace pipelines and ensure their safety since 2005.
The action was initiated by the state’s acting governor, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who is seeking to win election to a full term of his office in November.
“I commend the commission for taking immediate action to put residents’ minds at ease and taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety of Californians statewide,” Maldonado said. He said he would be “closely monitoring their actions.”
PG&E responded that it would comply fully. In a statement, the utility said it routinely checked gas pipelines for leaks and had already started surveying the three transmission lines that feed the Peninsula. PG&E also said it had reduced pressure in those three lines by 10 percent “as an added safety measure.”
The move by state regulators came as some San Bruno residents expressed frustration over not knowing why the 30-inch-diameter pipeline, which was installed in 1948, exploded just yards from homes – and whether other similar pipelines might be a hazard. PG&E operates more than 5,700 miles of gas transmission lines.
Few answers have emerged thus far. A PG&E spokesman said Sunday that the company inspected the segment of the pipeline that ruptured in March, but could not provide details of what was found. The lead investigator, the National Transportation Safety Board, said it does not yet know what compromised the pipe – corrosion, a bad weld, a past construction project that came into contact with the line, or something else.
As of Sunday, officials had confirmed four deaths from the blast, while four other victims were being treated for critical burns at St. Francis Medical Center in San Francisco. Two people who were reported missing have been found alive, authorities said Sunday in a rare piece of good news, but four more remain missing.
In addition, the San Mateo County coroner’s office is working to identify skeletal remains recovered from the area.
Searching for answers
As search and rescue teams continued to scour the charred blast site, which is still marked by a water-filled crater, the NTSB completed its second day of a probe that it expects will take 12 to 14 months.
Christopher Hart, the agency’s vice chairman, said investigators were packing up a 28-foot section of the steel pipe that was blown 100 feet in the air, and would ship it to a lab in Washington, D.C., for testing. An additional 10 feet of pipe from both ends of the explosion was hacked off Sunday and will be studied as well.
Hart asked for the public’s help. While residents have told the media that they smelled gas in the days preceding the blast, investigators have not heard from anyone who claims to have made a report to PG&E. The utility, as well, said it has found no record of such calls in the week before the disaster.
If a significant leak preceded the blast, Hart said, the gas might have killed vegetation. He asked anyone with dead plants to come forward, along with anyone who captured video of the incident or came upon fragments of metal on their property.
Other areas of inquiry, Hart said, include whether PG&E properly monitored and controlled the pipeline with a computer system, whether workers responded quickly enough to cut off the natural gas that continued to rush through the pipe and fuel the inferno, and whether there are any systemic problems at PG&E that contributed to the blast.
Trying to ensure safety
PG&E said it would cooperate fully with the probe, but faced questions about the integrity of the natural gas line. It responded Sunday to a document, released by The Utility Reform Network, an advocacy group in San Francisco, showing that PG&E planned to spend $5 million to replace a section of the same natural gas pipeline.
The document, given to the state utilities commission during gas-rate proceedings, says the risk stemming from a possible failure of the pipe is “unacceptably high.”
Andrew Souvall, a PG&E spokesman, said the segment of the line referenced in the memo is in South San Francisco, several miles from the blast site. He said workers surveyed it for leaks on Friday and found none.
“We take a proactive approach to the maintenance of our gas lines, and we constantly monitor our system,” Souvall said. “If at any time we identify a threat to public safety, we act to repair it immediately.”
The company felt that its system was safe enough for hundreds of families to return home. Souvall said the utility completed repair work by 7 a.m. Sunday, then dispatched workers to homes to conduct gas safety checks, relight pilot lights, and do spot repairs to ensure gas and electrical service was restored. Gas that flowed through the pipeline that exploded has been rerouted, he said.
But some residents, like Katherine Ingargiola, who was allowed to return home on Friday, said they still felt unsettled. She said her neighbors are now going through maps to track where pipelines are located and how close they come to homes.
“We’re still scared,” she said. “There’s a gas line that goes under our street.”
Fatal Gas Blast Prompts Scrutiny of Aging U.S. Fuel Pipelines
Sunday, September 12, 2010
(Bloomberg) — The San Francisco gas pipe explosion last week along with an oil pipeline leak near Chicago will likely draw regulators’ attention to fuel transportation networks, some of which have been in service more than four decades.
Four people are confirmed dead and four are missing after the Sept. 9 explosion of a 54-year-old PG&E Corp. natural-gas pipeline in the San Bruno suburb. The blast happened one day after an Enbridge Inc. crude-oil line leaked near Chicago, forcing a shutdown threatening fuel supplies in the U.S. Midwest. The Enbridge pipe, which can handle 670,000 barrels a day, started service in 1968.
The U.S. is crisscrossed with more than 2.5 million miles of fuel pipelines, or enough to circle the earth about 100 times. U.S. regulators may now step up inspections and increase the industry’s maintenance costs, said Mark Easterbrook, a pipelines analyst with RBC Capital Markets in Dallas.
“Regulators will probably look for more integrity spending on pipelines,” Easterbrook said. “We’re probably going to see incremental increases in the future, with more attention on older pipelines.”
Much of the underground infrastructure in the U.S., which also includes water and sewer pipes, has been in use for more than 50 years and needs to be evaluated and, where needed, replaced, said Blaine Leonard, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s in bad shape, but the risk is certainly increased,” Leonard, a civil engineer in Utah, said. “There’s a lot of hidden infrastructure and we can’t be complacent about it. So much of our economy and quality of life depends on it.”
In 2000, a gas pipeline owned by El Paso Corp. ruptured near Carlsbad, New Mexico, killing 12 campers in one of the deadliest pipeline explosions in the last 15 years. Corrosion was found to be the cause of the blast, El Paso said in a statement at the time.
The company, owner of the longest U.S. natural-gas pipeline system, agreed to spend $86 million on improvements and pay a $15.5 million civil fine in July, 2007, to settle government claims.
The PG&E pipeline that exploded last week in San Francisco was built in 1956, according to Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing all probes into the incident. Investigators haven’t yet pinpointed the cause of the San Bruno blast.
Enbridge’s closed pipe is part of the Lakehead System that started service in the 1950s to carry crude oil to refineries in the Midwest from Canada and also transports products like gasoline and jet fuel.
“Older pipelines are much more at risk because we didn’t have the protective technology that we do now,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said. “Old pipes had either no corrosion protection or were wrapped with material that looked like tar paper.”
Pipelines can be inspected using devices called pigs that run through sections of pipe, deploying sensors and cameras to detect cracks, corrosion and other defects from the interior. Companies can also pump fluids through the pipe at high pressure to test integrity, or dig up sections for visual inspections.
Energy pipelines in the U.S. are tracked by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The lack of computerized records for much of the U.S. pipeline network complicates efforts, said Weimer, whose Bellingham, Washington-based organization monitors and advocates for pipeline safety. “There is a lot of historical data that has been lost,” he said.
Bellingham was the site of a 1999 explosion of a gasoline pipeline that burned two 10-year-old boys to death and killed a fisherman who was overcome by fumes. The pipeline, owned by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Texaco Inc. and BP Plc, spilled 236,000 gallons of fuel into a creek, which then ignited. Shell and BP later paid $75 million to the families of the two boys in a settlement.
Sixteen people died in gas pipeline explosions in 2008 and 2009, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In June, three workers died in Texas in two separate gas pipeline explosions, triggered by construction crews striking the pipes.
Ruptures of natural gas lines are rare, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., a pipeline-safety consulting company in Redmond, Washington.
Causes of ruptures can include manufacturing defects that worsen over time, work crews that hit the pipes while digging, or corrosion.
Investment is needed in aging infrastructure of all types, including natural gas, water and the U.S. electricity grid, which can create jobs, and protect public health and safety, Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and energy team, said in e-mailed comments.
“Infrastructure wears out and this is especially true for local distribution systems,” Anderson said.
Ruined California Neighborhood Looks to Utility
By ELIZABETH LESLY STEVENS and GERRY SHIH
New York Times, September 11, 2010
In retrospect, perhaps many things should not have been built in this hilly, quiet corner of San Bruno.
Crestmoor, the subdivision devastated Thursday night in an explosion, is adjacent to San Andreas Lake. Running beneath it is California’s most-famous seismic fault.
But it wasn’t an earthquake that leveled dozens of Crestmoor’s homes. In addition to the fault line, the quiet development was built 50 years ago atop a 30-inch steel gas pipeline that, according to residents, had become an ominous presence in their lives before it exploded around dinnertime.
The inferno killed at least six people and destroyed 37 homes, wiping out much of the neighborhood.
Federal and state authorities are investigating not only what caused the 54-year-old pipeline to rupture and explode, but also whether PG&E responded appropriately to what residents described as continuous complaints about possible leaks.
“It just didn’t seem like they wanted to do too much about it,” said Jason Johnson, 30, an unemployed contractor. “Basically they were just shrugging us off saying, ‘Oh it’s your imagination.’ But when I smell gas, I smell gas.”
Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman, declined to comment on PG&E’s response to service requests in the neighborhood, citing the ongoing federal investigation. The company, documents show, has been beset by recent accidents in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
Crestmoor, with its winding streets and capacious houses, was built around 1960. It is composed largely of close-knit middle-class families, many of whom live within walking distance of their relatives on cul-de-sacs dotted with wood and stucco homes. The neighborhood is filled with young professionals and government employees, including workers at nearby San Francisco International Airport. On warm evenings, older men and women take walks with their grandchildren, and neighbors talk in their driveways.
In recent years, however, residents said the aging network of natural-gas pipes beneath Crestmoor produced odors and suspicious activity that began to encroach on daily life. Four months ago, according to Kathy Crouse, a retired American Airlines employee, what appeared to be a gas leak caused a patch of her lawn to turn yellow, and bubbles formed on the surface when it rained.
Days before the explosion, other residents said they complained about a persistent gas smell. Crews sent by PG&E to investigate a possible leak told residents to close their garage doors to keep out the smell, those residents said.
One day before the explosion, PG&E trucks with heavy equipment were seen on the street.
Those who called Crestmoor home — many for decades — know that nothing here will ever be the same.
Gayle Masunu, 59, and her mother Loretta, 83, lived for 40 years in a green bungalow on Claremont Drive. Ms. Masunu had worked for years as a preschool teacher and, before that, doing various jobs at the airport. A half-dozen relatives worked there too, including her son, Shane, who refueled jets and handled baggage before being laid off several months ago.
Ms. Masunu was at home Thursday when everything began rumbling and she heard an explosion. She ran into a back room, where her mother stood frozen. The back of the house faced the block that was the epicenter of the blast.
“I tried to pull her, I tried to pull her, she wouldn’t move,” Ms. Masunu said.
Ms. Masunu’s fleece jacket melted on her back as she dragged her mother out of the house. Loretta Masunu , who had two previous strokes, was put on life-support in the intensive care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Her relatives feared the worst until Friday morning, when she began to breathe on her own, make jokes, and even kick her grandson, Shane, out of her hospital room.
The family’s valuables, most of which they kept with the grandmother, are gone. In the wake of the disaster, many residents and local politicians directed their questions at PG&E, and the company’s behavior before and after the disaster.
Mr. Smith, the company spokesman, said PG&E shut off the gas supply that fed the fire “in the latter part” of Thursday evening. The explosion occurred at about 6 p.m.
Mr. Smith referred to what happened to the Masunus and their neighbors as a “terrible tragedy,” and said that his company was now focused on making sure “their immediate material needs are met.”
Ms. Crouse, who reported the yellowing lawn, said she had complained to PG&E about gas smells and possible leaks for 15 years. She said a neighbor called in a gas-leak complaint, and this took PG&E three weeks to fix — so long that the chalk drawn on the asphalt by repair crews was washed away by rain and had to be re-drawn.
At one point, Ms. Crouse said, PG&E workers told her that the odors came from a refinery more than 20 miles away.
“How stupid do you think we are?” Ms. Crouse said she thought.
PG&E carries nearly $1 billion in liability insurance, it reported in a filing with theSecurities and Exchange Commission on Friday.
“Depending on the final outcome of the investigation, and if insurance recoveries are unavailable or insufficient to cover the losses, PG&E Corporation’s and the utility’s financial condition or results of operations could be materially adversely affected,” wrote PG&E General Counsel Hyun Park.
The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, could not say immediately when it last audited the pipeline, which runs 46 miles from Milpitas, near San Jose, to San Francisco. The responsibility to test the soundness of the system rests on PG&E.
There have been several incidents involving PG&E in San Francisco in recent years, according to public documents. In December 2003, investigators found that PG&E took two hours to summon the San Francisco Fire Department when a fire broke out in its Mission District substation. The incident resulted in a massive power outage.
In August 2005, Lisa Nash was severely burned in a PG&E electrical explosion near the Crocker Galleria in the Financial District. She spent over two months in the hospital. She sued PG&E and said she cannot speak about the specifics of her experience, except to praise the personnel at the burn unit at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, where many of the San Bruno victims were also treated.
On Christmas Eve 2008, an explosion destroyed a house in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento. Wilbert Paana, 72, was killed, and his daughter and granddaughter were injured. An N.T.S.B. investigation found that a poor repair job and a nearly three-hour delay in responding properly to a gas leak at the house were to blame.
Dennis Herrera, San Francisco city attorney, pressured PG&E to take corrective action after these earlier incidents.
Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for Mr. Herrera, said that all the facts about the tragedy in San Bruno are not yet known. “But it is no secret there have been a history of problems with respect to the safety of PG&E’s infrastructure here in San Francisco,” Mr. Dorsey said.
PG&E Blast Kills at Least Four, Destroys 38 Homes
Friday, September 10, 2010
(Bloomberg) — Authorities are searching through the smoldering ruins of homes in San Bruno, California, after a PG&E Corp. natural-gas pipeline exploded yesterday, killing at least four people, destroying 38 houses and damaging seven.
Emergency workers fear there may be more injured or dead. “Unfortunately, the numbers are going to get higher,” Mayor Jim Ruane said of the fatalities today at a press conference near the blast site.
Firefighters this morning were still battling “hot spots” from the explosion, San Bruno Fire Chief Dennis Haag said at the press conference. “It looks like a moonscape in some areas.”
The fire began with the rupture of the pipeline and spread rapidly over 15 acres, Kelly Huston, a spokesman for California’s emergency agency, said in an interview with KGO radio in San Francisco. The damaged section of the 30-inch (76- centimeter) steel gas transmission pipeline was shut off within hours of the blast, Chris Johns, president of PG&E’s Pacific Gas & Electric utility, said at the news conference.
The company, based in San Francisco, will investigate reports of a gas odor in the area before the blast, which occurred shortly after 6 p.m. local time, Johns said.
The pipe that burst is buried about three feet (one meter) underground, Johns said. The utility had no crews working in the area and is investigating whether a third party may have been digging there, he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board will oversee all probes into the incident. The California Public Utilities Commission said in a statement yesterday it has investigators on the scene and will “gather all relevant information about the incident and obtain information from PG&E.”
“If it is ultimately determined that we were responsible for the cause of the incident, we will take accountability,” PG&E said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
PG&E lost as much as $1.56 billion of its market value today, the biggest intraday drop since May. The shares fell $3.50, or 7.3 percent, to $44.74 at 3:01 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.
The company has $992 million in liability insurance for damages caused by fire, after a $10 million deductible, it said today in a regulatory filing. Financial results “could be materially adversely affected” if insurance is insufficient or unavailable, it said.
In addition to the four deaths, three people were critically injured with third-degree burns in the fire, said Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, who is serving as acting governor of the state while Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Asia. Another 52 fire victims got hospital treatment, and four firefighters were taken to the hospital, said Maldonado, a Republican.
The devastated neighborhood is about two miles (3.2 kilometers) west of San Francisco International Airport.
“I thought it was a plane crash,” Karen Yee, who lives seven houses from the explosion, said in an interview. “I looked at it in disbelief, and said, ‘is it coming this way?'”
Yee and her husband said they didn’t know the condition of their house this morning.
Maria Reynoso was attending an open house at her daughter’s school 200 feet away from the blast. “The windows, the classrooms, everything was shaking,” she said in an interview. “We went to the car and were able to burn rubber away from there.”
The fire isn’t “having any direct impact” on flights, Michael McCarron, an airport spokesman, said in an e-mail yesterday. All airport traffic arrived and departed normally, he said.
San Bruno had an estimated 44,213 residents in 2008, according to census data provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments. Median family income was $84,978 in the past 12 months and the median price of an owner-occupied home was $667,400 in the years 2006 to 2008, according to the data.
A December 2008 gas leak at a home served by PG&E caused an explosion and fire that killed one person and destroyed a house in Rancho Cordova, California. Government investigators said the cause of the incident was use of the wrong pipe.
A gas transmission pipeline owned by El Paso Corp. ruptured in 2000 near Carlsbad, New Mexico, killing 12 campers. There have been no fatalities related to gas transmission pipelines in the past two years, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. There were about 306,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines in the U.S. at the end of 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Ruptures of gas transmission pipelines are infrequent, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. in Redmond, Washington. Transmission pipelines are larger than the gas distribution lines that supply customer homes.
Kuprewicz said the ruptures tend to occur in rural areas and can cause significant damage because of the pressure and volume of gas on the lines.
“In microseconds the pipe, if it goes to rupture, shrapnels into many pieces and it’ll just toss out metal fragments all about,” he said. When the gas ignites, the explosion often creates a crater, he said.
“It’s way too early to know culpability, the extent of damages, the amount that will be assessed to PG&E, and how seamlessly the insurance recovery process will be,” Phil Adams, a Chicago-based analyst for Gimme Credit Inc., wrote today in a note to clients.
Insurance covered a $900 million settlement by Sempra Energy, California’s third-largest utility owner, of claims power lines of its San Diego Gas & Electric unit sparked wildfires in 2007, Adams wrote. Utility regulators raised rates to cover the higher insurance premiums that resulted, he wrote.
PG&E’s $3 billion of 6.05 percent bonds due in 2034 dropped 3.9 cents today to 112.1 cents on the dollar, the biggest decline since February 2009, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.