Although there is no direct link to the catastrophic San Bruno pipeline rupture and explosion nearly two years ago, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. again was placed on the defensive by local news reports Tuesday suggesting that as recently as four years ago the combination utility was encouraging workers to defer a lot of distribution pipeline leak repairs.

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

The news report acknowledged 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 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 by the Chronicle, 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.

While the news coverage was given front page treatment, PG&E officials pointed out that there was no tie to the San Bruno transmission pipeline explosion. The report deals only with distribution pipelines, and the incidents cited happened four years ago, the company said.

"We don't know where or how the newspaper obtained the old internal document," a utility spokesperson said. "The report 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 Daily GPI, June 7).

In a letter notifying the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), PG&E said its failure to meet self-imposed standards for programs designed to prevent corrosion of pipelines turned up "a limited number of inspection locations." Attached to the correspondence was a listing of the 180 pipeline segments needing corrections, noting that they are spread over 32 counties, including 65 cities and numerous unincorporated areas. Some infractions dated back to 2004, a utility spokesperson said.

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 (Grade 1) leaks each month.

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