No good answers - Page 2

PG&E sharply questioned at hearing on San Bruno explosion

Kirk Johnson, vice president of gas operations at PG&E, spoke at the hearing

"Our engineers looked at that piece of pipe and deemed it was safe until 2013, at which time we should continue to look forward to its construction," Kirk Johnson, vice president of gas operations at PG&E, said during the hearing.

That assertion prompted Assemblymember Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) to ask Johnson how PG&E defines "safe." Reading aloud from the project summary included in the second request for funding, Hill noted, "'The likelihood of failure makes the risk of a failure at this location unacceptably high.' Are you saying that that description is a 'safe' condition?"

In response, Johnson launched into a detailed description of what factors are considered when calculating risk, but Hill cut him off. "Would that be considered a safe pipe?" he repeated.

"I think for a pipeline to be deemed safe, it needs to go through an analysis to ensure that it's safe, and that line was deemed safe," Johnson responded.

Essentially, PG&E reached different conclusions about the integrity of the same section of pipeline over the course of several years, and no one at the hearing seemed able to explain why. The utility flagged the pipeline stretch as being in need of replacement in 2007, received millions of dollars in the form of higher utility rates to do it, spent the money on a different repair instead, went back and requested more money citing the same repair, and then decided that the pipe would remain intact until 2013.

For all the inconsistency, that particular segment of Line 132 was not actually the same section that blew apart. CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon emphasized this point. "The discussion that alarms me the most," he said, "is the part that blew wasn't on that list."

Meanwhile, the San Bruno pipeline wasn't the only utility infrastructure PG&E never fixed, even though ratepayers forked over the cost of the repair. A list released by The Utility Reform Network (TURN) focused on the electric side of the gas-and-electric company's vast system, noting that the utility received millions in 2007 for a slew of reliability and safety-related projects, but never quite got around to completing them. Among the neglected projects were transformer replacements, gas meter protection upgrades, reliability and safety equipment, and inspections that can help identify deficiencies.