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PG&E did poor job inspecting gas pipes, advocacy group says

September 10, 2010 |  4:08 pm

PG&E has had extensive problems with a program to inspect leaks in a massive distribution system that stretches from the California-Oregon border to Bakersfield, according to a ratepayer advocacy group.

Distribution pipes, which deliver natural gas to neighborhoods and individual homes, are smaller in diameter and operate at less pressure than the giant transmission pipes such as the one that exploded in San Bruno.

“Gas Leaks, Gas Leaks Everywhere” was the subheading in written testimony submitted June 11 to the California Public Utilities Commission by William Marcus, an expert witness who commented on PG&E’s current rate increase proposal on behalf of the Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group.

The utility, he said, has not been forthcoming about its poor inspection record because it “is afraid of negligence lawsuits in the event of explosions due to previously undetected leaks,” he said. 

PG&E do not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Marcus said he was able to get some insight into the program’s difficulties -- including poor training of inspectors and falsification of records -- because the PUC’s Utilities Safety and Reliability Branch released a PG& E PowerPoint presentation that noted that a 2007 re-survey of leaks in the North Coast Division “found deficiencies” including “record falsification” in earlier surveys performed in 2004-07.

At one point, the survey had to be “suspended” and all personnel retrained. Surveys made using special optical equipment showed that operators were not qualified and had to be retrained. Results of a “statistical sample survey” revealed that all eight out of eight samples in the Yosemite area “did not meet criteria.”

Four our of four were subpar in the Peninsula; four of eight in the Sierra; eight of eight in the North Valley; and four of four in Fresno, the presentation said.

A 2008 leak survey showed better results, PG&E said.

The report concluded that “system-wide improvements needed in leak survey” in the areas of “leak grading process, standards, controls training and operator qualification.”

As a result, the company had to resurvey “all facilities previously surveyed in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.” The extra work will cost $103 million in unexpected resurveys by the end of 2010, Marcus said.

PG&E is working on a response to the information. PG&E’s lackluster distribution inspection record could be indicative of the kinds of problems that led to a fatal gas explosion Dec. 24, 2008, in a residential neighborhood of Rancho Cordova, a Sacramento suburb, Marcus said.

The gas leak in a distribution line killed one person and injured five. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the probable cause of the explosion was the use of substandard pipe. The line included “a section of unmarked and out-of-specification polyethylene pipe with inadequate wall thickness that allowed gas to leak from the mechanical coupling installed on Sept. 21, 2006,” the NTSB reported.

A contributing factor was the two-hour-plus delay in the arrival of the scene of a PG&E crew that “was properly trained and equipped to identify and classify outdoor leaks and to begin response activities to ensure the safety of the residents and public,” states the NTSB report adopted on May 18, 2010.

“There were several mistakes made,” Marcus said.

An earlier 2006 repair of the same line was faulty. “Instead of poly pipe, they installed the sleeve it was packaged in. Of course, it leaked,” he said.

Marcus also faulted a PG&E employees for making an initial inspection of the scene but not ordering people to evacuate their homes. 

-- Marc Lifsher