Daily GPI / NGI All News Access

PG&E Pipeline Operations Stuck in Defensive Posture

With more critical revelations and regulatory penalties unfolding this week, Pacific Gas and Electric. Co. (PG&E) has hunkered down to playing some serious defense, and very clearly not disputing all the critical shots being taken at its natural gas operations -- past and present.

A damaging internal warning by a former consultant/employee from 20 years ago that was revealed Monday by a highly critical local congresswoman has not been disputed by the San Francisco-based combination utility. Increasingly, PG&E has found it impossible to go on the offensive and take control after months of investigation and allegations following a rupture of one of its transmission pipelines last September in San Bruno that killed eight people and has unearthed one can of worms after another for its gas pipeline operations.

"Our pipeline record keeping needs to be significantly improved, and we are committed to addressing this issue," PG&E's spokesperson Brian Swanson told NGI Tuesday, following the latest revelations. So the utility is not disputing the former employee's allegation that records for pipelines were outdated and incomplete 20 years ago? "We willfully acknowledge that our record keeping practices need to be improved."

Critics, such as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), who represents San Bruno as part of her congressional district, contend that this systemic failure going back to the 1980s creates seeds of doubt about how many other parts of the 6,000-mile PG&E transmission pipeline system might be vulnerable to a catastrophe similar to what hit a quiet residential neighborhood in San Bruno, about 10 miles south of San Francisco, last Sept. 9.

But on this point, Swanson contends the ongoing steps being taken, including hydrostatic testing and inline camera inspections of pipeline sections similar to the failed Line 132 segment in San Bruno, so far has shown that the pipeline system's current maximum allowable operating pressures (MAOP) are safe, and in some case -- 13 to be exact -- the MAOP has been lowered by up to 20%.

Swanson assures that pipelines of a similar age and characteristics to the 30-inch diameter steel welded pipeline that failed in San Bruno have been identified and prioritized for inspections and testing.

"As we conduct and complete the hydrostatic pressure tests and the [inline, robotic camera] inspections, we will have validated safe operating pressures for our system," he said. All the hydrostatic tests completed thus far, including one in the San Bruno area, have turned up no leaks or abnormalities in the pipe segments being tested, Swanson confirmed.

While Swanson and other officials at the utility have continually said they are sharing everything they turn up as part of the records search and field work, on several occasions during the nine-plus months since the tragedy federal and state regulators or elected officials have taken PG&E to task for not being forthcoming. Speier in particular has questioned whether the utility can be trusted.

Swanson falls back on the enormity of the ongoing process, citing Monday's filing as including 16,000 documents containing 227,000 pages of information, with only about 7,200 of the documents being relevant to the post-San Bruno investigation. The 7,200 documents were culled from 125,000 X-ray and safety test reports going back 55 years that the utility has reviewed so far, he said.

About 94% of the 7,200 documents involved potential problems that the utility identified and corrected prior to the given pipeline segments being put into service, Swanson said. "That reflects that we had an adequate quality assurance program for those pipes before they were put into service."

Flying in the face of all this is the now nearly 20-year-old memos from a former consultant and employee who now works with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory His internal warnings cited the lack of adequate pressure test records being maintained and chided PG&E gas operations management -- then in the midst of a reorganization -- for not generating up-to-date designs, or "plat sheets," for new pipelines being installed.

The former employee, identified by local news media as Lawrence Medina, gave the circa-1992 internal memo to Speier, and she in turn supplied it to the National Transportation Safety Board and the California Public Utilities Commission.

©Copyright 2011 Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.

ISSN © 2577-9877 | ISSN © 1532-1231
Comments powered by Disqus