The recent Oscar winners have nothing on San Francisco’svenerable Gran Dame of combination energy utilities, Pacific Gasand Electric Co., whose film career and notoriety seem destined towin increasing Hollywood scrutiny if not gold statuettes.

Look no further than your local first-run movie theaters and thereal-life drama, “Erin Brockovich,” taking the actual name of thelatest heroine to put PG&E’s familiar logo in the klieg lights.Unfortunately for PG&E, toxins like chromium or PCBs inassociation with its gas pipelines can create their own dramas.

Just as the new movie, starring Julia Roberts, hit the theatersearlier this month, a new real-life problem confronted thecombination utility with contaminates getting into the southernpart of its California gas transmission system.

The movie is the story of a legal assistant — a twice-divorcedmother of three young children — who single-handedly challengesPG&E, exposing its alleged operating mistakes that led to theuse of chromium in its pipelines and eventually in the local watersupply of a small, remote, high-desert town called Hinkley, whichis about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Lawsuits emerged inthe early 1990s based on the development of tumors and other healthproblems among many of the Hinkley residents. By PG&E’s ownadmission decades earlier it legally discharged wastewatercontaining chromium into the ground at its compressor station nearHinkley. Some of the chromium eventually got into the groundwater,and PG&E acknowledges it “did not respond to (that) problem asopenly, quickly or thoroughly as it should have.” It provideddrinking water to nearby residents and arranged for medical examsfor residents wishing to have them. PG&E also worked with localand state officials to clean up the problem. In 1996, however,PG&E settled a class action suit (one of several) with 650Hinkley residents for a record $333 million.

“The movie is a dramatization and it is pretty entertaining, soI liked it,” said Jon Tremayne, a PG&E utility spokesperson.

PG&E CEO Robert Glynn told his employees, “It’s clear inretrospect that our company should have handled some thingsdifferently at that time. And I wish that it had.”

Litigation against the big energy firm continues. Involving thesame transmission pipeline and geographical areas, the current PCBsfound in PG&E’s interstate supplies are coming through Enron’sTranswestern Pipeline unit at the California-Arizona border fromNew Mexico but are not at harmful levels at this point in time.Routine testing early in February turned up the suspectedcancer-causing chemical, which was used as a lubricant inhigh-pressure pipelines and compressor stations until it wasbanned.

“What we are talking about here is very low levels (ranging from2 to 22 parts-per-million, or ppm), well below (U.S.) EnvironmentalProtection Agency (EPA) levels (50 ppm),” according to Tremayne.

Since the installation of a series of filter separators on bothsides of the California-Arizona border, PG&E has concentratedon testing and following up along its southern transmission systemthat extends some 350 miles to the town of Kettleman in thenorthwestern part of the central San Joaquin Valley. PCB traceshave been found, and PG&E has been working with the local gasdistributor in the area, Southwest Gas Corp., to test for signs ofPCBs in the nearby Barstow and Victor Valley distribution systems.As of March 22, none of the definitive results were in and therewon’t be much before the end of this month, according to Tremayne.

Both state regulators and the federal EPA have been notified ofthe situation. The federal EPA confirmed that PCBs are authorizedfor use in concentrations below 50 ppm. It is the EPA laboratorytests that showed PCBs were known to cause cancer in laboratoryrats.

PG&E spokespeople were assuring the public last week thatthe utility will “take any additional actions necessary” as aresult of data from the ongoing testing it is doing of itstransmission system and interconnecting distribution pipelinesystems. And the utility is planning to install additional filterseparators at various locations along its pipeline.

PCB-containing lubricating oils once were used routinely by anumber of U.S. pipeline companies in their gas pipelinecompressors, which help push the fuel through the pipes. While theyare no longer used, some of the oils have remained inside somepipelines since the 1960s and 70s. If present, they are carried inliquid droplets in the natural gas stream.

Between the newly released motion picture and PG&E’s localwrestling match with the PCBs, another class action lawsuit againstPG&E stemming from the original chromium issue heads towardtrial, pushed by residents in Topock, AZ and former residents ofHinkley not involved in the first suit. A trial date has been setfor Nov. 27, and CNN’s “CourtTV” program is proposing to providelive coverage.

Richard Nemec, Los Angeles

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