Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) was vindicated Wednesday in a recent whistleblower's case, which alleged negligence by the utility in its handling of pipe welds on critical parts of its 6,000-mile natural gas transmission system.

A California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) staff investigation of the allegations, which surfaced earlier this year, were determined to be unfounded. "[The] CPUC Consumer Protection and Safety Division [CPSD] did not find any instances in which welds were not inspected in compliance with federal and state gas pipeline safety regulations," the CPUC report said.

PG&E Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos, who runs the utility gas system, said the regulatory staff's report "validates" his employees' commitment to quality and its conclusions match the findings of the utility's own investigation of the matter. For the future, Stavropoulos said the utility's stepped-up hydrostatic testing of pipelines will provide "tangible, relevant and credible evidence that we are operating our gas system safely."

Two members of the union representing the pipeline workers at PG&E -- Marshall Worland, an excavator, and Mike Mikich, a welder -- testified that they thought certain welds performed by PG&E on specific gas pipeline segments were problematic because of possible efforts by the utility to cut costs and apply a "nonobjective" process for inspecting welds.

These allegations arose from an earlier statewide investigation launched by the CPUC in early 2011 and for which PG&E was granted an extension to produce full documentation on welds and flaws uncovered during the past 55 years on 1,805 miles of its gas transmission system (see Daily GPI, Feb. 28, 2011).

The CPSD launched the probe last February in response to the allegations, which included claims of extensive corrosion and cracked coatings on the exterior of certain pipelines. The staff reported that it had no verification of any of the allegations.

"The CPUC staff found that as part of its hydro-testing program [after the San Bruno, CA, pipeline explosion], PG&E is evaluating defects when they are found and that any significant defects are cut out of the line prior to hydro-testing," the summary said. Any defects that get by this testing would be picked up in subsequent hydro testing, the report said.

The CPSD staff "extensively investigated" the allegations and interviewed the individuals who made the allegations in a filing by the United Association of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters, and Steamfitters Local Union Nos. 246 and 342.

"Though the allegations were determined to be unfounded, CPUC staff continues to monitor PG&E's gas pipeline safety programs and practices," the report said. "This oversight includes a careful review of PG&E's pipeline welding practices and techniques as well as its hydro-testing program and methods."

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