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Post-Mortem on NTSB’s San Bruno Hearings: Drumbeat of Damaging News for PG&E

| March 7, 2011
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I know it’s a little late, but I just wanted to do one last wrap-up about the NTSB’s San Bruno hearings last week.

Because even though I like my investor-owned regulated monopolies as much as the next guy, and I’m happy with the $25 debit card PG&E recently sent my way, it was hard to be someone charged with monitoring events at the hearing without feeling a little overwhelmed by the drumbeat of damaging revelations that emerged.

Here’s the full boat of p.r. nightmares, in list form:

  • Confusion and chaos at PG&E on night of San Bruno explosion (Mar 1, Bay Area News Group)

    On Tuesday, nearly six months after the tragedy, federal investigators released thousands of pages of documents that provide the first public look behind the scenes at the confusion, chaos and high-stakes decisions occurring in PG&E’s nerve center as the disaster raged. At first, the control center staff thought a gas station had exploded. Then, they thought it was a plane crash. Even though the flames were being shown live on Bay Area television news broadcasts from helicopters, the TV wasn’t turned on in the PG&E control room. It wasn’t until roughly an hour after the 6:11 p.m. blast that the control center workers — whose responsibilities are similar to air-traffic controllers, and who oversee thousands of miles of gas lines from Bakersfield to Oregon 24 hours a day — had a clear understanding of what had happened, transcripts of their calls show.

  • PG&E officials grilled about automatic shut-off valves (Mar 1, San Jose Mercury News)

    Gas feeding the flames devouring a San Bruno neighborhood could have been shut off at least an hour earlier, but PG&E had decided in 2006 that adding automatic or remotely controlled shut-off valves to its natural gas pipelines did not significantly increase safety, company officials testified Tuesday… (I)n the hearing, most of the board’s attention was focused on testimony by PG&E officials about their lack of interest in automatic and remotely controlled shut-off valves. A 2006 memo by Chih-hung Lee, PG&E senior consulting gas engineer, found that the valves would have “little or no effect on increasing human safety or protecting properties” in the event of a rupture because most of the damage would occur in the first 30 seconds before shut-off valves could halt the flow of gas. “It’s frightening to me to think that’s the kind of analysis that PG&E would engage in when making an assessment on safety,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who attended the hearing. “It’s absolutely outrageous.”

    Lee acknowledged that his report only used natural gas industry sources and ignored a Department of Transportation report that found that such valves could reduce damage. That report focused mainly on smaller distribution lines, rather than the sort of large transmission lines that exploded in San Bruno.

  • PG&E inspector faulted sewer work under San Bruno gas line (Bay Area News Group)

    A PG&E inspector has expressed concerns to federal investigators about the methods used in 2008 to install a sewer line just inches below the natural gas line that erupted in San Bruno on Sept. 9, according to documents made public this week. The sewer project under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is of concern to some experts and government regulators in large part because the work involved a procedure that produces violent ground shaking. The inspector said the sewer line was installed without his direct oversight and closer to the gas pipe than he wanted — a claim the contractor on the job disputes in part. But the inspector ultimately concluded that the work “seemed to be OK.”

    • Watchdog criticizes PG&E spikings (Mar 3, SF Chronicle)

      A top gas-safety regulator for California called Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s practice of intentionally spiking the pressure on older urban gas pipelines “a wrong-headed approach to safety” on Wednesday, and he would not dismiss the possibility that it contributed to the deadly San Bruno explosion.

    • Robot camera reveals pipeline flaws in wake of San Bruno blast (Mar 3, SF Examiner)

      A few weeks after gas pipeline 132 in San Bruno split open and spewed a deadly geyser of flames, PG&E sent a robot with a camera through the out-of-service pipelines around the break, searching for other potential hazards that had existed in it without their knowledge. And they apparently found plenty. In one dramatic case, the pipe had been punctured and hastily plugged with a makeshift patch. In another, the pipe had been dented, causing a small split in a nearby seam. In several cases, liquid sat pooled in the pipe, a problem that could lead to corrosion.

    • The People Will Pay for PG&E’s Pipeline Problems (Mar 3, Bay Citizen)

      The hearings, by the National Transportation Safety Board, revealed that the Sept. 9 explosion, which killed eight people, was caused in part by the failure of a matrix of antiquated pipes installed in the 1950s. Possible preventive actions that were discussed included replacing aging pipes; more frequent inspections; installing pipe-burrowing cameras and automatic or remote-controlled gas shutoff valves; and new leak detection systems, firefighter training and public awareness campaigns…Under California‚Äôs utility rules, customers pay for safety improvements, a tab that includes an 8.79 percent profit margin for PG&E. The safety measures already identified by the company could cost customers nearly $100 apiece in rate increases, which would be added to bills over several years if approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Those two measures are not likely to satisfy all of the proposed new regulations, however, and final costs to customers could be much higher.

    • Gas official calls San Bruno explosion ‘an anomaly’ (Mar 3, San Jose Mercury News)

      A gas trade association official created a stir Thursday when she described the San Bruno pipeline explosion as “an anomaly” during a National Transportation Safety Board fact-finding hearing into the rupture that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes…Her response provoked a challenge from NTSB investigator Bob Trainor, who asked how it could be an anomaly when two incidents, the San Bruno blast on Sept. 9 and a 2007 explosion in Carmichael, Miss., have claimed 10 lives. Sames replied, “to me that is still an anomaly.” But she added that it’s one that has lessons for the gas industry.

    • PG&E replaced San Bruno pipelines in 1993, but stopped one block short of doomed section (Mar 4, San Jose Mercury News)

      PG&E officials were so concerned about the risk of their natural gas transmission lines bursting during an earthquake that, in 1993 and 1994, they replaced five miles of aging underground steel pipes in San Bruno. But the utility’s construction crews ended the job less than 300 yards from Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue, the site of the deadly explosion that killed eight people last September, new documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board show…A central question remained Thursday: If PG&E geologists and engineers were concerned about damage to their gas transmission pipelines in San Bruno neighborhoods from a major quake on the San Andreas Fault, which they called “the greatest seismic hazard to our pipelines on the San Francisco Peninsula,” why did they only replace some of those lines with newer, thicker steel and leave other aging lines directly adjacent to them untouched?

    Reporter Paul Rogers of the Merc provided a cogent summary of the hearings to KQED’s Kelly Wilkinson last week:

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