Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle, December 16, 2010
California regulators warned Pacific Gas and Electric Co. last year that persistent safety problems in its gas distribution system were putting the public at risk, according to a strongly worded letter obtained by The Chronicle.
The letter from a senior gas safety inspector suggests the relationship between regulators and the utility leading up to the deadly Sept. 9 pipeline explosion in San Bruno was more contentious than top state officials have portrayed publicly.
It also refers to cases in which the utility was apparently ignorant of key aspects of its own system, a finding similar to what federal investigators looking into the San Bruno disaster concluded in an interim report released Tuesday.
"It is apparent to us that the failure of PG&E to provide adequate procedures, or the failure of PG&E personnel to follow established procedures, has resulted in safety risks that would most likely not have been created" if the utility had abided by the law, Sunil Shori, a safety inspector with the California Public Utilities Commission, wrote in a Feb. 13, 2009, letter that The Chronicle obtained under the state public records law.
Shori wrote that PG&E was having trouble following federal law requiring that workers who check for gas leaks be properly trained. He also said the utility was not making sure it was complying with the law when it linked up gas lines with different allowable pressures, and sometimes was unaware it was doing so.
His concerns dealt with the utility's distribution system - the network of smaller pipes that routes gas to homes and meters - not the higher-pressure transmission pipes used to send gas over long distances such as the one that exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people and leveling 37 homes.
Although failures in distribution lines may not result in such massive destruction, they can still be deadly. A leak from a botched repair at a distribution line in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County) that a PG&E worker failed to detect led to an explosion in December 2008 that killed a 72-year-old man.
"Although PG&E has implemented programs to address these safety risks going forward," Shori wrote in his letter, "we see no reason why PG&E should not have been able to address these risks during the course of normal construction, operation and maintenance activities occurring in past years."
The frustration Shori expressed in the letter was at odds with the stance his supervisors took publicly after the San Bruno disaster.
Shori's boss, Richard Clark, said in a Chronicle interview one month after the blast that "we don't see problems" with PG&E that would warrant strict enforcement actions.
"We don't see it," said Clark, head of the Public Utilities Commission's Consumer Protection and Safety Division. "This is an anomalous event that took place in San Bruno."
Clark and other commission officials have said PG&E's comparatively high level of gas-safety law violations in recent years - the company accumulated more citations from the agency than all other utilities in California combined from 2004 through 2009 - was the product of the regulatory approach that encourages utilities to report their own safety problems.
Paul Clanon, executive director of the commission, has said regulators encourage the utility to find and fix its own problems as a way to build a "culture of safety."
However, according to the letter by Shori, an engineer involved in day-to-day enforcement of gas safety laws, PG&E had a record of "apparent deficiencies" in its gas distribution system that "impact public safety" and violated state and federal law.
Shori's letter, addressed to the director of gas engineering at PG&E, said the utility was not making sure properly trained workers were in the field to check for gas leaks.
Federal investigators later blamed the December 2008 pipeline explosion in Rancho Cordova in part on PG&E's use of an untrained worker who failed to locate a neighborhood gas leak. The utility could ultimately face fines for that and other alleged safety law violations in the accident.
Shori also said the utility wasn't keeping track of the designated gas pressure on its distribution lines - pointing to at least five cases in which lines with differing pressures had been linked up without proper documentation. In some of the cases, lines that were supposed to be run at lower pressures were linked to ones running at higher pressures - creating a safety risk of overloading the lower-pressure lines.
Shori found that in two of the cases, the utility had ignored the required testing process needed to safely link the systems, and that in three of them, it had been unaware of the links altogether.
That was similar to a finding the National Transportation Safety Board reached in its interim report on the San Bruno blast.
The agency said it had reached no conclusions about a cause, but that one factor it was examining closely was whether a weld running along the lateral seam of the pipe had failed. Investigators said PG&E had been unaware that the pipe, installed 54 years ago, even had that type of weld.
The finding surprised independent experts, who said the utility's ignorance might have led it to use an unreliable inspection method on the pipe less than a year before it exploded.
In his 2009 letter, Shori said the utility wasn't doing enough to find pipes and meters that could be vulnerable to corrosion and catastrophic failure. In some cases, he said, key safety issues were given "low priority" and that in others, PG&E did nothing to check the integrity of gas meters.
Shori said some of PG&E officials' assertions that the utility was in compliance with the law were "not entirely correct" or did "not make sense." He worried that PG&E was taking too long to fix its problems, given "the reduced level of safety."
Four months later, PG&E responded.
"We are striving to address all gas maintenance and operation issues as quickly as possible without compromising employee and public safety," wrote Glen Carter, the utility's director of gas engineering.
Carter said the utility's approach was "consistent with the joint goal of PG&E and (state regulators) - to maximize safety and reliability of the distribution system by encouraging the utility to regularly inspect or monitor its system and ... take prompt remedial action" to fix any problems in a "reasonable" time.
Joe Molica, a spokesman for the utility, said this week that PG&E had "aggressively addressed" regulators' concerns about the distribution network and now regularly meets with inspectors to coordinate responses to the problems it finds.
In a statement issued this week, the Public Utilities Commission called Shori's letter "appropriately strongly worded" and "one of the first steps of our enforcement process."
The commission said PG&E had "expeditiously moved to make corrective actions."
"If PG&E had not voluntarily brought their discovery of issues to the CPUC, and moved expeditiously to take corrective action, the CPUC would have levied fines and penalties," the commission said.
But Dean Florez, a former Democratic state senator from Kern County who challenged regulators about oversight practices at a legislative hearing on San Bruno in October, said Shori's letter "completely contradicts" commission officials' assertions that PG&E consistently kept safety in mind and reported its own problems.
"It's beyond stunning that the CPUC would just bury this kind of information from an oversight committee," said Florez, who left office this month and wants Gov.-elect Jerry Brown to appoint him to the commission. "How could they have missed this?"
Florez said Clanon and Clark both portrayed PG&E's safety record as solid during the October legislative hearing. Neither commission official returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.
"They both need to explain themselves - not only to the (Public Utilities Commission) board but to the public - about what they knew and why the CPUC was withholding this kind of information to an oversight committee," Florez said.
"It's just really scary to know how they operate."
E-mail Jaxon Van Derbeken at email@example.com.