As national experts associated with the federal investigation and/or the gas pipeline industry continue assessing the aftermath, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) spent most of Tuesday trying to put in perspective a wide range of misinformation and speculation circulated in news reports concerning the gas transmission pipeline explosion and fire in San Bruno last Thursday (see Daily GPI, Sept. 15; Sept. 13).
The only certainty appeared to be the fact that there is nothing known definitely in terms of reports of prior gas odors and the large San Francisco-based combination utility's ultimate liability for the horrific incident.
Early Tuesday the utility reported that 14 customers remained without gas and electric service. Of the 315 homes in the affected area, 301 homes have been restored with gas and electric service. Under the circumstance PG&E also felt obligated to report on its San Bruno web page that a third-party construction crew hit a two-inch plastic pipe while installing storm drains somewhere in the Bay Area. "PG&E crews are on-scene making repairs with one customer out," the utility reported.
Theories were repeated about the integrity and maintenance of the pipeline prior to the blast, but nothing was certain, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and other investigators would not divulge exactly where their investigations were focusing. Further reports that the aftermath costs of the disaster would tax the financial resources of PG&E or saddle utility ratepayers with major rate increases were similarly discounted by the utility and third-party experts that have followed other similar cases, such as the more than billion dollars in claims faced by San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) after a series of devastating wildfires hit its service area three years ago.
A San Francisco-based construction company that did city sewer replacement work near the site of the pipeline failure said PG&E had inspected the job and its relation to the gas pipeline and said it did not affect any of its transmission operations at the time. San Bruno city officials have said they did not believe the sewer work contributed to the blast.
As the CPUC asked for detailed records on the pipeline's inspection and maintenance during the past five years, PG&E confirmed that the transmission pipeline passed inspection last March and was free of leaks at the time, and the pipeline passed an external inspection for corrosion last November.
The utility also continues to contend that a check of 95% of all of its service records since July 1 turned up no reports of gas odors in the immediate area of the pipeline failure. There were two calls from residences two or three blocks from the disaster -- one reporting gas odors and the other a gas leak at the meter. The odor report turned out not to be a problem, and the meter leak was identified and fixed, PG&E told local news media Tuesday.
It was also confirmed that the blast pipeline (Line 132) does not have valves that can be remotely activated to cut the flow of gas as do other transmission pipelines on the PG&E backbone system.
The public debate about future impacts on utility rates was already in full flow Tuesday. Under current regulations, investor-owned utilities can seek a rate increase if the costs of responding to a disaster exceed its insurance coverage. The five-member CPUC can reject the request, however. Coincidentally, hearings on a proposal from SDG&E to have ratepayers bear the uninsured costs began at the CPUC in San Francisco Tuesday, and PG&E was an early supporter of the proposal well before the San Bruno incident hit.
Consumer advocates in San Francisco and San Diego were quoted in the local news media as strongly opposing the proposal. Whatever the outcome on the pending proposal, PG&E will not be affected up to the $992 million limits of its insurance coverage.
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