California regulators are investigating allegations by union members that there are flaws in the welds and corrosion repairs that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) completed last year as part of its testing, repair and replacement of more than 160 miles of natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline running through high consequence areas (HCA).

Individuals working for two units of the Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Steamfitters Local Union Nos. 246 and 342 made allegations to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) related to the hydrostatic testing of transmission pipe segments last year in the wake of the San Bruno pipeline rupture and explosion in September 2010 (see Daily GPI, Feb. 8).

Separately, the San Francisco-based combination utility said it had conducted its own follow-up investigation of the weld x-rays done in last year’s hydrotest work and concluded that “these welds currently meet industry and PG&E standards.” In addition, the utility self-reported an infraction to the CPUC involving slugs of unodorized gas from nearby production wells getting into the supplies for about 17 agricultural customers north of Sacramento in Butte County.

Given the much more serious allegations from the union members, the utility report on a remote portion of its gas pipeline system seemed to stir little reaction, particularly because a new odorizer is being installed and will be operable by Friday.

In an interview last Friday with NGI, PG&E’s Nick Stavropoulos, executive vice president, described his utility as being in the early stages of a “long journey” to become the nation’s premier gas operator, noting that it now has some technology changes in the offing that could accelerate its transformation.

In response to the union workers’ allegations, the CPUC said it has directed its Consumer Protection and Safety Division (CPSD) to speak with the workers making the charges, and conduct their own field work in the areas identified and in some other sample areas. The transmission system allegations are still being investigated, but on the distribution pipeline the CPSD has looked at other allegations of wrongdoing and not found any on PG&E’s part.

The distribution allegations involved leak surveys on both high-risk Grade 1 lines and nonhazardous lower-risk lines categorized as Grade 2+, 2 and 3. “Thus far, CPSD has found no material evidence to support the allegation that leaks are not being repaired in a timely manner as leaks are prioritized for repair,” a CPUC spokesperson said.

Interim CPSD Director Michelle Cooke said the regulatory panel takes “all allegations of unsafe actions by a utility very seriously.” He said the utility is “cooperating fully” with the CPSD as it works its way through the union allegations.

In the meantime, the self-reported violation involved PG&E’s work last September to reduce the maximum allowable operating pressures (MAOP) on many of its transmission segments, particularly ones crossing HCAs. As a result of the pressure reduction in one of the pipelines involved (Lines 169 and 177) a valve was closed at a regulator station to drop the MAOP in Line 177; however, it also changed the flow from south to north on the line, allowing supplies of unodorized gas to enter a farm tap serving up to 17 rural customers in the area.

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