PG&E Fights Toxins in Gas Stream, Movie Fallout
The recent Oscar winners have nothing on San Francisco's
venerable Gran Dame of combination energy utilities, Pacific Gas
and Electric Co., whose film career and notoriety seem destined to
win increasing Hollywood scrutiny if not gold statuettes.
Look no further than your local first-run movie theaters and the
real-life drama, "Erin Brockovich," taking the actual name of the
latest heroine to put PG&E's familiar logo in the klieg lights.
Unfortunately for PG&E, toxins like chromium or PCBs in
association with its gas pipelines can create their own dramas.
Just as the new movie, starring Julia Roberts, hit the theaters
earlier this month, a new real-life problem confronted the
combination utility with contaminates getting into the southern
part of its California gas transmission system.
The movie is the story of a legal assistant --- a twice-divorced
mother of three young children --- who single-handedly challenges
PG&E, exposing its alleged operating mistakes that led to the
use of chromium in its pipelines and eventually in the local water
supply of a small, remote, high-desert town called Hinkley, which
is about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Lawsuits emerged in
the early 1990s based on the development of tumors and other health
problems among many of the Hinkley residents. By PG&E's own
admission decades earlier it legally discharged wastewater
containing chromium into the ground at its compressor station near
Hinkley. Some of the chromium eventually got into the groundwater,
and PG&E acknowledges it "did not respond to (that) problem as
openly, quickly or thoroughly as it should have." It provided
drinking water to nearby residents and arranged for medical exams
for residents wishing to have them. PG&E also worked with local
and state officials to clean up the problem. In 1996, however,
PG&E settled a class action suit (one of several) with 650
Hinkley residents for a record $333 million.
"The movie is a dramatization and it is pretty entertaining, so
I liked it," said Jon Tremayne, a PG&E utility spokesperson.
PG&E CEO Robert Glynn told his employees, "It's clear in
retrospect that our company should have handled some things
differently at that time. And I wish that it had."
Litigation against the big energy firm continues. Involving the
same transmission pipeline and geographical areas, the current PCBs
found in PG&E's interstate supplies are coming through Enron's
Transwestern Pipeline unit at the California-Arizona border from
New Mexico but are not at harmful levels at this point in time.
Routine testing early in February turned up the suspected
cancer-causing chemical, which was used as a lubricant in
high-pressure pipelines and compressor stations until it was
"What we are talking about here is very low levels (ranging from
2 to 22 parts-per-million, or ppm), well below (U.S.) Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) levels (50 ppm)," according to Tremayne.
Since the installation of a series of filter separators on both
sides of the California-Arizona border, PG&E has concentrated
on testing and following up along its southern transmission system
that extends some 350 miles to the town of Kettleman in the
northwestern part of the central San Joaquin Valley. PCB traces
have been found, and PG&E has been working with the local gas
distributor in the area, Southwest Gas Corp., to test for signs of
PCBs in the nearby Barstow and Victor Valley distribution systems.
As of March 22, none of the definitive results were in and there
won't be much before the end of this month, according to Tremayne.
Both state regulators and the federal EPA have been notified of
the situation. The federal EPA confirmed that PCBs are authorized
for use in concentrations below 50 ppm. It is the EPA laboratory
tests that showed PCBs were known to cause cancer in laboratory
PG&E spokespeople were assuring the public last week that
the utility will "take any additional actions necessary" as a
result of data from the ongoing testing it is doing of its
transmission system and interconnecting distribution pipeline
systems. And the utility is planning to install additional filter
separators at various locations along its pipeline.
PCB-containing lubricating oils once were used routinely by a
number of U.S. pipeline companies in their gas pipeline
compressors, which help push the fuel through the pipes. While they
are no longer used, some of the oils have remained inside some
pipelines since the 1960s and 70s. If present, they are carried in
liquid droplets in the natural gas stream.
Between the newly released motion picture and PG&E's local
wrestling match with the PCBs, another class action lawsuit against
PG&E stemming from the original chromium issue heads toward
trial, pushed by residents in Topock, AZ and former residents of
Hinkley not involved in the first suit. A trial date has been set
for Nov. 27, and CNN's "CourtTV" program is proposing to provide
Richard Nemec, Los Angeles