Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is on the defensive as citizens statewide want to know what steps were taken to check the stability and integrity of its natural gas pipeline system.
A 30-inch portion of pipeline exploded Thursday in San Bruno, killing four people, destroying dozens of homes and severely injuring eight others.
On Sunday night, PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson told Patch the pipe had undergone a gas leak survey in March 2010 and was scheduled to have a survey every 15 months. A pipeline integrity assessment was conducted on that section of the pipe in October 2009 and March 2005, Swanson said, adding that the assessment process and the test results now are being researched by the company.
While residents of the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood report that they called PG&E to report gas odors in the weeks before the explosion, the company so far has been unable to find any records of such calls in the eight days before the incident, Swanson said.
"If anyone has information about a call being made to PG&E, we would like to know who made the call, when they made the call and what number they called so we can investigate this further," Swanson said.
Scant details are being shared publicly now that the National Transportation and Safety Board is conducting its investigation into the blast that devastated the hilltop area and left 83 homes destroyed or uninhabitable. The disaster is believed to be the worst natural gas pipeline accident in PG&E history.
NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said Sunday it's too early to tell if the pipe was corroded. The answer could take a long time to surface: The board's investigations into similar accidents have sometimes taken years to conclude.
More than 100 pipeline accidents across the country are listed on the NTSB website, and detailed reports are available on at least 30 of the most recent incidents. Among them was the Dec. 24, 2008 explosion at a Rancho Cordova home that killed a man and injured five others. Prior to the San Bruno incident, the death of Wilbert Paana, 72, was the most recent natural gas pipeline explosion fatality in PG&E's service area and the most recent resulting in a full NTSB incident report.
Meantime, a national pipeline safety expert said industries that rely on pipelines to deliver products have a long record of neglect and of failing to make upgrades to underground infrastructure.
Bob Rackleff, board president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, has been advocating for better pipeline safety for almost 20 years and said his reaction to the San Bruno disaster was, "Here we go again."
"Incidents like this are few and far between, but they have very high consequences and huge portions of neighborhoods can get wiped out," said Rackleff, a Florida resident, former Naval intelligence official and a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. "Being a low-occurrence, high-consequence event, operators tend to ignore small mistakes and get into that mindset that it'll never happen again. But small mistakes add up and pretty soon you have a huge problem like this."
Rackleff said growth in natural gas demands have led to existing pipelines being overburdened with higher and higher pressures, measured in pounds per square inch.
"To get gas where it needs to go, you can either add a new line or crank up the pressure," he said. "What companies have been doing nationwide is cranking up the pressure, buying new pumps to provide that additional pressure and off we go. Even though they are within the maximum allowable operating pressure, they are putting new demands on a system that is growing older and older."
There is no federal requirement that dictates when a company must replace an aging pipe — be it for natural gas, oil, water or any major commodity. Industry standards show that pipes can last for generations if they are properly maintained, and the technology used to monitor underground pipes has improved exponentially in the past decade. But across America, utilities are testing the limits of pipeline life partly because of the high costs of replacement.
Homeowners ought to be able to find pipeline maps of their neighborhood and see when pipes were last inspected or repaired, Rackleff said.
"There really needs to be an effort to replace our aging pipeline system," Rackleff said. "The peak years for construction were the 1950s and '60s. For natural gas it was more recent, like the '60s and '70s. … Let's face it, there are going to be a lot more of these (incidents)."
The leader of a San Francisco-based watchdog group, The Utility Reform Network, has been vocal in recent days of its criticisms of PG&E.
Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, said PG&E has not taken complaints about gas leaks seriously enough and that numerous San Bruno residents have gone on the record saying they filed complaints prior to the fatal blast.
"People have said they sent out a few trucks and didn't find a leak or fix anything," Toney said. "People should be able to expect that their utility won't leave an area until a leak is fixed. I think PG&E needs to make responding to gas leaks an absolute No. 1 top priority. There needs to be a way we know they will follow through."
Just as British Petroleum ousted its chief executive officer in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, PG&E needs to take a hard look at its leadership and its prioritization of rebuilding its infrastructure following the San Bruno disaster, Toney said. The company's estimated $1 billion in liability insurance might not be enough to cover the losses, he said.
"Clearly the public is concerned that this has happened before with PG&E," Toney said. "If it is found that they did not respond properly to earlier complaints before this tragedy, then I question whether their management should be in place. Their leadership needs to realize that the costs associated with this should become the responsibility of their shareholders, not the ratepayers. If they are found to be negligent, they had better not pass along the costs by raising their rates."