PG&E had OK to fix pipe near blast; work not done

/ Source: NBC, and news services

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. got state permission in 2007 to spend $5 million of ratepayer money to replace a 62-year-old section of the pipeline that exploded last week in San Bruno but the work, scheduled for 2009, wasn't done, a utility watchdog said Wednesday.

The utility repeated its request in 2009, asking for $5 million more to do the job by 2013, even though ratepayers had already started paying for the project, according to TURN, The Utility Reform Network, citing documents that PG&E submitted to the California Public Utility Commission.

"There's no excuse for deferring maintenance of potentially compromised pipelines that run under customers' homes, businesses and schools," Mark Toney, executive director of TURN (The Utility Reform Network), said in a statement.

The Los Angeles Times reported on its website that in the 2011 request for capital expenditures, PG&E described the portion of the pipeline, about 1.5 miles north of the segment that exploded, as in “the top 100 highest risk line sections” in a 2007 evaluation.

The 2½-foot-wide gas main in San Bruno exploded Thursday night, killing at least four people, injuring dozens more and destroying scores of homes. The California Public Utilities Commission has ordered an inquiry and told PG&E to inspect all of the state’s gas pipelines for potential problems.

PG&E says it’s still too early to know why the pipe blew up. But disclosures since the blast make it clear that a trifecta of vulnerabilities meant the San Bruno main was prone to fail sooner rather than later:

  • It was 54 years old, at the outer limit of its expected 50-year lifetime.
  • It was made of steel. As reported last week regulators have long regarded steel — which is used in about half of all gas pipelines and nearly two-thirds of the nation’s larger gas mains — as a safety hazard because it’s too rigid and easily corrodible.
  • Because of the gas main’s age and the twists and turns of the pipeline, PG&E couldn’t use robots that would have been the best way to maintain and inspect it.

The Obama administration wants Congress to tighten oversight U.S pipelines and more than double penalties for some safety violations in response to the deadly gas explosion in California and a major oil spill in Michigan.

Legislation sent to Congress Wednesday would increase from $1 million to $2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious pipeline violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm, the Department of Transportation said. It also would pay for an additional 40 inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.

The proposal follows several accidents that have called attention to the nation's aging pipelines and how they are monitored. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his department "needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation's pipeline network."

Congress is expected to recess for November elections in the next 2-3 weeks, making it unlikely a bill can be enacted within the next two months. Rep. James Oberstar, a Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which was holding a hearing Wednesday on the Michigan oil spill, said he wants to "scrub" the proposal with the help of administration officials and lawmakers from both parties before the recess so that a bill can at least clear the pipeline subcommittee by then.

"I do think there is urgency," Oberstar said.