Nearly two years into the wake of the deadly San Bruno natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is still having trouble taking full control of its 50,000-mile transmission and distribution system covering the central and northern expanses of California. An internal memo from the San Francisco-based combination utility has revealed more than 120 incidents of over-pressuring on portions of its system since the Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno tragedy.
Nick Stavropoulos, PG&E’s executive vice president in charge of the gas system, sent the memo to the utility’s gas system employees to let them know that the rash of over-pressurization — although mostly small — were “unacceptable.” There were 78 incidents last year, and another 40 this year, all of which were reported to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and corrected, a utility spokesperson told NGI Monday.
Stavropoulos said that PG&E experienced 32 incidents in March and April alone this year; its target for the entire year is 42. “If I were a betting man, I’d say we’re going to surpass our target by a long shot, and in this case, that’s not a good thing,” he wrote in a four-page document addressed to his “Team.”
Noting this is the type of thing “that keeps me up at night,” Stavropoulos said the utility is “really going to crack down on these [over-pressurizing incidents].” The goal is to get the incidents to zero, he said.
The report was the lead item in a multi-issue communication to PG&E employees. Another item noted the success the utility has had in cutting down on its leak repair backlog since the start of the year. Nevertheless, the over-pressurization incidents have caused quite a stir, prompting the San Francisco Chronicle to publish a report on Sunday quoting third-party experts who characterized the incidents as a bad sign for the utility and the overall level of safety of its pipeline system.
One consultant specializing in pressure-control valves and their replacement was quoted in the Chronicle report as saying that PG&E has a “serious problem.” Another, who advises utility watchdog group The Utility Reform Network, said that if pipeline pressures are not adequately controlled it isn’t a matter of if, but when, another incident like San Bruno will occur.
While acknowledging that the report on the amount of over-pressurization incidents was basically accurate, a San Francisco-based PG&E spokesperson said “the important thing to note is that they were very small, but Stavropoulos has said this number of incidents is unacceptable.” As a result, the utility is “doing everything it can” to make sure the incidents aren’t repeated.
The incidents were spread throughout the utility’s territory, including the peninsula area south of San Francisco where the pipelines involved in the San Bruno incident are in place.
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