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PG&E Past Pipeline Work Questioned

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was placed on the defensive last week by reports that suggested that as recently as four years ago the combination utility was encouraging workers to defer natural gas pipeline leak repairs. The combination utility responded and said it took exception to the allegations, which date back to 2008.

Internal documents and comments by past natural gas utility employees were cited in a report by the San Francisco Chronicle alleging that more than 2,300 gas leaks were given lesser priority classifications to defer any repair work and to save $5 million for the San Francisco-based utility. However, a PG&E spokesperson said there was never an attempt to downgrade leaks.

"In total for 2012 to date, PG&E has repaired and closed out 72,085 leaks, which substantially improves the integrity of it gas pipeline system," said spokesman David Eisenhauer. He outlined various technology additions the utility has made or will be making. "PG&E is the first in the gas industry to begin incorporating a state-of-the-art gas leak detection analyzer," which he said is The Surveyor by Picarro Inc.

The news report stated that the 2008 internal PG&E report did not specify that managers should reclassify the leaks but it labeled a list of 2,304 leaks as "excessive leaks scheduled for repair." These were Grade 2-level leaks (on a 1-to-3 scale, with 1 meaning "hazardous" and repair immediately) that were supposed to be fixed in three to 18 months, depending on their level of severity.

Several former utility employees were cited in the report, including a gas system mapper who in April 2008 had protested the company's characterization as encouraging people not to fix Grade-2 leaks. PG&E subsequently stopped the references to cost-cutting in the leakage work. PG&E officials pointed out that there was no tie to the San Bruno, CA, transmission pipeline explosion, which occurred in 2010. The report dealt only with distribution pipelines, and the incidents cited happened four years ago, the company said.

"We are doing everything possible to find and fix gas leaks quickly and well within the compliance standards set for each type of gradable leak," said Eisenhauer. "We don't know where or how the newspaper obtained the old internal document. The report [from four years ago] in question was a tool for engineers to use to help manage the monitoring and leak repair program. It was never intended to be used to encourage people to downgrade leaks or anything like that."

In early June PG&E voluntarily reported to California regulators 180 instances in which parts of its natural gas transmission pipeline system were in violation of requirements related to cathodic protection to help prevent pipe deterioration and leaks (see NGI, June 11).

The utility continues its three-level grading system for leak assessments and work on the distribution pipeline system with the addition of a fourth level, Grade 2-plus, to classify the most urgent of the second-level leaks. So far this year, PG&E said it has fixed 500-600 of the highest priority, hazardous (Grade 1) leaks each month. Grade 2-plus fall between 1 and 2; they are not hazardous, but must be dealt with in 90 days after their detection. Grade 2s can be done within a 15-month period and then rechecked periodically every six months thereafter.

"As PG&E continues to revamp its quality assurance/quality control capabilities [for its gas system] as part of the company's top 10 priorities for gas operations, the leak survey and repair quality control programs will continue to evolve in order to provide an appropriate level of confidence that leak survey and repair activities are being performed safely and in accordance with all governing standards and regulations," Eisenhauer said.

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