Did Utility Know Pipelines Weren’t Safe?

gas explosion California 2010

There is sure to be an uproar – not to mention questions asked about engineering practices – any time a gas pipeline explodes in the middle of a suburb, killing eight people and razing around 50 buildings.

When an employee of the utility concerned testifies that he repeatedly warned management that its gas records were incomplete, matters are made far worse, and senior personnel have a lot of explaining to do, especially when the same employee tells a courtroom that absolutely nothing was done about it.

According to a report in Business Week, Todd Arnett, a senior engineer for Pacific Gas and Electric Co, has testified before a San Mateo County Superior Court that he repeatedly warned his supervisors before a 2010 blast in the San Fransico suburb of San Bruno that the utility’s gas records were incomplete and that lives were in danger as a result.

He contends no action was taken to rectify the situation.

Arnett’s testimony was given as part of a civil suit in which 350 plaintiffs are taking action against the company. The case is set to go to trial in October.

Having gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate the safety of its operations in recent months, this is exactly the kind of scenario the company least wanted the public to hear tell of.

A 45-page plan it submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) about actions to make its pipelines safe and reliable represents a “roadmap to becoming one of the nation’s safest gas utilitie,”’ the company’s executive vice president of gas operations Nick Stavropoulos says.

gas explosion California

On July 9, Pacific Gas and Electric showed off its ‘in-line inspection’ tools, referred to as ‘smart pigs’. The tools use a combination of GPS data, magnetic sensors and other technology to collect information that is then analyzed to assess the condition of the pipe.

“Rigourous pipeline inspections are among the ways PG&E is proactively ensuring the safety of its gas system,” the company proudly trumpeted.

In this context, Arnett’s testimony about the pipe’s records is downright humiliating, though it is not the onlysource of embarrassment for the company.

Whereas modern pipelines have automated valves that stop gas flow when sensors detect pressure drops, this pipeline was so old, according to The San Fransico Chronicle, that workers had to retrieve keys and drive to two secured sites several kilometres from the fire and manually crank the valves shut.

Just as damning, the company had been meaning to replace an older section of that same line in 2007, but had never gotten around to it.

Media reports also suggest the company apparently knew far less than it should have about its pipes. It had no idea it the pipeline that exploded had a seam, the reports say. Otherwise, the company would have had to prove that the line was in good condition.

At this stage, PG&E says it has no response to Arnett’s allegation, and that it will respond to the plaintiff’s claims by August 20.

Whatever the outcome, the latest allegations are a sheer embarrassment to PG&E.

After the company’s claims over how good its monitoring technology is and about how diligently it inspect the pipelines under its control, it does not look good when PG&E’s own staff testifies about how management was warned about inadequate records.

Perhaps the utility might now think about using some of the whiz-bang technology it claims to have to actually learn something about its infrastructure.

Andrew Heaton
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