No good answers

PG&E sharply questioned at hearing on San Bruno explosion

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Kirk Johnson, vice president of gas operations at PG&E, spoke at the hearing
PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

rebeccab@sfbg.com

There was lots of anger from victims and legislators but very few substantive answers from regulators or Pacific Gas & Electric Co. officials during an Oct. 19 hearing at the state capitol on the Sept. 9 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured at least 50 others, and destroyed 37 homes in San Bruno.

State senators grilled PG&E executives and officials from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), demanding to know why an aging segment of the San Bruno pipeline had been neglected despite having been flagged several years ago as high-risk and in need of repair.

Residents from San Bruno, including some who lost loved ones in the catastrophic incident, recounted their terrifying experiences of that night. Five San Bruno residents filed suit Oct. 19 against PG&E in San Mateo County Superior Court.

The complaints allege that the utility didn't do enough to maintain the pipeline: "Investigation has revealed that the pipeline that exploded was a ticking time bomb," one of the complaints states. "The San Bruno pipeline explosion was completely preventable."

WHAT IS "SAFE"?

A central focus of the California Senate committee hearing was Line 132, the gas line that ruptured. PG&E installed the 30-inch, high-pressure steel pipeline in San Bruno some 50 years ago.

In 2007, the company approached the CPUC as part of an annual rate-setting process and asked for higher rates, justifying its request with a list of repairs that needed funding. A segment of Line 132, several miles from the epicenter of the explosion, was on the list. The CPUC granted a $5 million rate increase to complete the upgrade, but the work was never done. The money presumably went toward a different project deemed a higher priority.

In 2009, PG&E was back at the CPUC again with a second request for additional funding and a new project list in hand. Line 132 was included again, coupled with a document noting, "The risk of a failure at this location [is] unacceptably high."

But even though the upgrade was never scheduled and the project never completed, Line 132 vanished from the repair list by the time PG&E returned to the CPUC as part of the rate-setting process in 2010. By then, an engineer had determined it would not have to be replaced for several more years.