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PG&E ordered to inspect entire gas system after San Bruno blast

September 12, 2010 |  5:03 pm

State utility regulators announced Sunday that they will order Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to inspect its entire natural-gas transmission system for leaks, preserve all records from the San Bruno explosion and report how much the company is spending on pipeline safety and replacement. 

Michael R. Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, also said he would appoint an independent panel of experts to assist in the commission’s investigation.

PG&E, which operates more than 5,000 miles of pipeline, has already begun to inspect the three pipelines that serve the San Francisco Peninsula. Geisha Williams, senior vice president for energy delivery, told residents at a packed town hall meeting Saturday, “For San Bruno and the immediate areas, we are all over it, and we’re developing a more comprehensive plan to look beyond San Bruno into San Francisco.”

Peevey also said that PG&E could not use the section of pipeline that blew up Thursday night until the commission approves it. Williams had told residents that the company would not decide whether to continue using it until the cause of the explosion is determined. “That’s really a great question for the future,” she said. “Right now I don’t have the specific answers to that question.”

The transmission line that ruptured, known as Line 132, is 51.5 miles long. It starts in Milpitas and ends in San Francisco at 23rd and Illinios streets. PG&E officials said it is inspected annually for leaks, most recently in March, and was inspected for corrosion in November.

The commission will also ask the utility to retain records of work that it said was done in September at the Milpitas Terminal and work performed on the pipeline in San Bruno. And it will ask the utility to report immediately on its procedures for responding to gas leak reports and to provide data on all leak reports and PG&E’s responses.

A decade ago, PG&E launched an assessment of its gas transmission lines, assigning a risk number to each segment based on the likelihood that it would fail and the damage that could occur if it did. The ranking of the section that blew up Thursday night is not known.

But according to documents the utility filed with the California Public Utility Commission, a 7,481-foot section to the north, built in 1948, is among the 100 riskiest and needs to be replaced because “the likelihood of a failure makes the risk of a failure at this location unacceptably high.” The company has proposed to spend $5 million to replace it between 2012 and 2014.

Andrew Souvall, a PG&E spokesperson, said that section was inspected Friday. “No leaks were found,” he said. He said that the report’s reference to pipeline risk was “forward-looking,” meaning that it would become a risk if it were not replaced in the proposed time frame.

“We constantly monitor our system and if at any time we identify a threat to public safety we act to repair it,” he said. “We always take a proactive approach toward the maintenance of the lines.”

According to another public filing, the company’s top priority in the San Francisco area is a section that runs for eight miles between Livermore and Sunol. “This is the highest-risk pipeline in the Bay Area,” the report concludes. PG&E has proposed to replace it for $35.1 million. The second-highest risk is a 4.3-mile section in Fremont with a replacement cost of $13.4 million.

The company’s report says the high-risk section in the San Joaquin Valley is a 7.9-mile stretch between Ripon and Stockton that would cost $33.6 million to replace.

Robert Swink, a retired auto body repairman who lives in a neighborhood that overlooks the blast site, said, “Keep that sucker closed down. Look what’s happened.” He said he was not aware of the pipeline when he moved into his newly built house in 1958. He found out when a friend informed him that a 30-inch diameter main gas transmission line was across the street from his ranch home. “We have never gotten used to it,” he said.

-- John Hoeffel in San Bruno