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Criminal Case Against PG&E Pipe Blast Cites Recordkeeping Problems

Federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California have submitted testimony in its criminal case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), alleging that shoddy recordkeeping contributed to a 2010 natural gas pipeline rupture and explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, a suburb south of San Francisco.

Prosecutors cited evidence provided by a former PG&E employee indicating that the San Francisco-based combination utility's records had incomplete or incorrect information that may have contributed to the tragedy five years ago.

Former PG&E employee Leslie McNiece will testify that another utility employee asked her to destroy documents, and that she found pipeline documents in a trash bin, according to the court filing. The feds will try to prove that PG&E was aware its records were insufficient, lacking information on a previous leak on the failed transmission pipe segment.

Last year, California regulators imposed a record-setting $1.6 billion in penalties for PG&E’s role in the failure of its 30-inch diameter transmission pipeline (see Daily GPIApril 9, 2015; Sept. 13, 2010). The utility also was facing more civil penalties at the end of last year (see Daily GPIOct. 15, 2015).

A PG&E spokesperson told NGI on Wednesday that it "unequivocally disagrees" with the government's claims, characterizing them as "mischaracterizations" for which the utility is anxious to get "the opportunity to shed light on the facts in court." The utility "has made great progress since 2010, and we look forward to continuing that progress and to re-earning the trust of our customers and communities."

The utility has "implemented and continues to improve upon its industry leading best practices in records/information management and safety culture,” the spokesperson said.

The latest legal challenge comes within days of a third-party assessment showing the much maligned utility has "made a lot of good progress during the past five years in making their pipeline systems safer," according to a report by Lloyd's Register Energy.

Lloyd's assessed PG&E's 70,000 square-mile area of pipeline networks, determining that the utility meets the requirements of the American Petroleum Institute (API) pipeline safety management system standard, Recommended Practice 1173 (RP 1173).

"Although most of the elements of API RP 1173 had already been covered by our previous audits, PG&E wanted a thorough 'deep dive' into its integrity systems for transmission and distribution pipelines," said Peter Glaholm, Lloyd’s lead assessor and regional manager for utilities.

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