Officials face more questions on pipeline blastBy Joshua Melvin
Without having much choice in the matter, residents have received a crash course on natural gas pipelines since one exploded in their midst.
That was clear Tuesday night when they got an advanced course from regulators, Pacific Gas and Electric and independent experts on the details of the Sept. 9 explosion that killed eight people and destroyed three dozen homes.
The meeting, which ranged from the role of the California Public Utilities Commission to how pipes can rupture and internal inspection devices called "smart pigs," is just the latest step in dealing with the tragedy.
During the forum that also included state lawmakers, CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon told residents how the agency works and the source of the rules it is tasked with enforcing. But he also discussed the commission's philosophy of not levying fines against large utilities like PG&E in order to enforce regulations.
"The idea is for them to come forward when there is a problem," he said.
He went on to say PG&E, however, will likely face fines for a 2008 explosion that killed a man in Rancho Cordova. An investigation revealed that the blast was caused by an improper piece of pipe installed by one of the utility's workers.
During one of the few tense moments of the meeting, Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, grilled Clanon on the details of how PG&E spends ratepayer money. Hill claimed the utility has twice used repairs on a section of South San Francisco gas pipe as justification for hiking customers' rates. But twice that work has not been done even though the utility said in documents to the CPUC that the section has an unacceptably high risk of failure.
"They got $5 million to fix it in 2007 and $5 million to fix it in 2009," said Hill, who demanded to know what happened with the money.
Clanon said nobody actually goes back and makes sure that PG&E does the work it uses to justify rate increases. He said the money likely went to other pipeline projects that were deemed more important.
"We know that they spent it on pipelines," Clanon said.
Which drew shouts of "How? How?" from the crowd. Clanon responded by saying the state legislature would likely have the same question for him.
In his comments PG&E's Kirk Johnson, head of gas engineering and operations, said the utility has inspected thousand of miles of pipeline from the air and ground and even the inside since the explosion. But he said he could not go into the possible causes of the blast because of the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pipeline experts did not discuss their theories either, but they did talk about the good and bad ways to inspect pipe. Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant, said no method is perfect. What is important, he said, is that the inspections were done properly and resulted in action.
"Beware of the dumb smart pigs and incomplete hydro tests," he said referring to two testing methods.
For some residents, the meeting and the deluge of information was a good thing. Carole Guernsey, whose home on Claremont Drive was destroyed in the blast, said some of the information was over her head, but most was useful.
"I think they could have cut to the chase a little more," she said with a smile. "All I need to know is where the pipes aren't."
Copyright ©2010 San Mateo County Times. Published 12/07/2010.