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June 24th, 2011:

Utility in Deadly Gas Explosion Faces Questions

American Energy Coalition - June 24th, 2011

The California utility whose pipeline exploded in 2010 in San Bruno, killing eight people, is under fire for sending unreliable information to officials investigating the incident, according to the Associated Press. 

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in May notified the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that the transmission line where the explosion occurred had sprung a leak a few miles away in 1998. But a more recent filing by the company included documentation from workers that raised questions about the company's account. 

The conflict about the 1998 leak is just the latest development in a long string of concerns about the company's record keeping in the wake of the September 2010 blast in San Bruno. 

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman previously has chided the company for coming forward with critical information about prior failures so long after the agency began its probe, saying it could hamper investigators' progress. 

In this week's filing, PG&E revealed that none of the approximately 20 leak surveyors and pipe repairmen involved in the 1998 incident recalled a leak springing from a seam running lengthwise down the pipe, as the document given to NTSB in May states. 

One worker said he remembered the leak stemming from a girth weld, a problem that also appeared in several other spots on the high-pressure line coursing through bedroom communities south of San Francisco, according to the filing. 

Following the explosion, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered the company to hand over decades' worth of safety records for its pipelines, and this week's release includes more than 16,000 documents on welding problems. 

NTSB investigators say last year's blast originated at a poorly installed weld on the lengthwise seam of the transmission line, which PG&E previously believed was seamless. 

Consumer advocates said such shoddy accounting puts people at risk, and they wonder whether PG&E might reveal other erroneous records in the future. 

"One day the records say one thing, the next day they say something else, the next day there are no records to be found or they were written in erasable ink," said Mark Toney, executive director The Utility Reform Network, based in San Francisco. "The story keeps changing, and the more we learn, the more it sounds like there were repeated early warning signals on that line that were never followed up on." 

PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson initially said the small methane leak detected in 1998 was the result of a defect in a double-seamed weld running lengthwise down the transmission pipeline. 

Swanson would not say earlier this week whether the company told federal investigators about employees' conflicting accounts, but he subsequently clarified that the company notified NTSB about the new information at an undetermined "later" date. The NTSB declined to comment on the discrepancy, and CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the commission had not heard about any of the prior leaks before the San Bruno blast. 

"We have conflicting information," Swanson said. "We're learning valuable lessons from this investigation, and when all the facts are known about the cause of this terrible tragedy, we'll be able to put in place the types of practices and procedures to help prevent this from happening again." 

The U.S. Department of Justice, as well as numerous state and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies, are pursuing their own investigations into what led up to the pipeline rupture. 

Pipeline safety experts said it was concerning that PG&E lacked key details about weld flaws on the ruptured line, because girth weld and long seam weld leaks necessitate different kinds of safety tests. 

To read the Associated Press article, click here.

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