PG&E Under Investigation After Order To Keep San Carlos Pipeline Closed

The California Public Utilities Commission today ordered PG&E to keep a disputed natural gas pipeline in San Carlos out of service until its safety is verified by the commission’s staff.

San Carlos officials, who fear the 3.8-mile Line 147 could be vulnerable to dangerous leaks, asked the San Francisco-based commission for such an order on Monday.

Commissioner Michel Florio said in a statement, “We are committed to ensuring that PG&E is operating pipelines safely. We will not compromise safety.”

The commission’s investigation will result in public findings, orders for corrective action if needed, and citations for any violation of law or regulation found by the probe, said CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.

Florio and Administrative Law Judge Maribeth Bushey also ordered PG&E to submit an updated safety certification for the line by Oct. 11.

San Carlos city leaders began questioning the safety of the line after receiving internal PG&E emails on Thursday that showed that PG&E engineers had raised concerns in November 2012 that the pipe was thinner than indicated in PG&E records and had showed corrosion.

In one email, former PG&E engineer David Harrison, now a consultant to the company, wrote, “Are we sitting on another San Bruno situation?…Is the pipe cracked and near failure?”

In San Bruno, a leak in another PG&E pipeline on Sept. 9, 2010, resulted in a deadly explosion and fire that killed eight people, destroyed 38 houses and damaged dozens of other buildings.

The emails were revealed in connection with a separate CPUC investigation of problems with PG&E record-keeping on pipelines. That probe is one of several begun in the wake of the San Bruno explosion.

In an emergency lawsuit filed on Friday, San Carlos obtained a temporary injunction late that day from San Mateo County Superior Court Judge George Miram requiring PG&E to shut off service to the line for the time being.

The utility completed closing off the line from its transmission system on Sunday and finished reducing pressure within the segment from 300 to 120 pounds per square inch on Monday.

City Manager Jeff Maltbie said of today’s order, “We’re thrilled the commission has issued an order to keep the pipeline out of service and start an investigation.

“The quick response sends a very strong message to PG&E to work with the city and the CPUC and sends a strong message to our residents that the CPUC cares greatly about their safety,” Maltbie said.

Maltbie said one of the city’s concerns is that a test conducted on the line by PG&E with high-pressure water in 2011 may have weakened the pipe.

That possibility was raised in the Nov. 17, 2012, internal email by Harrison, who asked, “Could the recent hydro test (have) contributed to cracking in this pipe and essentially activated a threat?”

PG&E has said it believes the line is safe because it passed the 2011 hydro test and because a metallurgy analysis by an outside company showed that a leak in October 2012 stemmed from external corrosion and not from a rupture in a seam.

The San Bruno leak occurred in a break in a welded seam, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
PG&E said in a statement today that it will comply with the CPUC order and that it “welcomes the opportunity” to demonstrate to the commission and Peninsula communities that the line is safe.

“We look forward to the opportunity to document all the work that has gone into maintaining and operating this line safely,” said Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos.

He added, “It is important that this validation be completed on an expedited basis because Line 147 is even more critical to our system once colder weather comes our way. We don’t want to be in a position of being unable to serve our customers because the pipeline is out of service.”

The company said in its statement that in addition to testing the line, it has taken number of other steps to assure safety, including replacing a 20-inch valve, installing anti-corrosion protections and conducting regular surveys and assessments.

It said the questions raised by Harrison in the email message last year “were seriously discussed” and that the company encourages employees and contractors to raise any concerns they have about safety.

San Carlos Mayor Bob Grassilli said, “I want to thank the California Public Utilities Commission for supporting the safety of the citizens of San Carlos. I look forward to a positive resolution of this situation.”

In another development, PG&E attorneys asked San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Robert Foiles this afternoon to dissolve the temporary injunction issued by Miram on Friday.

But Foiles declined to act on the request and told the attorneys they could bring their motion back to court Thursday, when Miram, who is away today, is back on the bench, according to a court clerk.

PG&E said in its statement that while it will comply with the CPUC order, it will go back to court to seek to end the injunction because it contends that the commission and not the court has jurisdiction over the matter.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!