The head of a federal investigation into the gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno criticized Pacific Gas & Electric on Wednesday for only recently revealing records about a previous leak on the same line.
Later the same day, state regulators granted PG&E more time to turn over records about the safety of its pipelines.
After a tour of the neighborhood that went up in a fury of flames last September, National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman told reporters that just two weeks ago, PG&E had turned over information about a 1988 leak that occurred nine miles to the south of the explosion site. The delay in turning over records that were clearly crucial to an investigation into the pipeline’s explosion revealed that PG&E seems to have little grasp on the leak history of their own lines, she said.
“We certainly would have expected to see that information sooner,” Hersman said.
The exact cause of the leak is still unknown, but PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson said the company’s records indicate the leak was very small when discovered, and a document identifies it as a “longitudinal weld defect,” which could mean anything from a pinhole leak to a major flaw in the weld, like the ones found in the area that exploded.
Swanson said PG&E had only discovered the document recently, as it has worked to bring record-keeping practices “up to industry leading levels.”
“We’ve acknowledged since the tragedy that our operations and record keeping practices are not where they should be,” Swanson said.
PG&E has had hundreds of employees poring over millions of historic records in their local offices for months, ever since the California Public Utilities Commission demanded a full record of the safety of their lines early this year.
In March, PG&E failed to produce all of those documents by the CPUC’s imposed deadline, leading the commission to launch an investigation into the company’s record-keeping practices. The commission initially threatened to fine the company more than $1 million a day, but shortly thereafter backed off that threat and granted the utility an extension to turn over paperwork until June.
Then, last week, PG&E requested even more time to turn over the records, saying that complying with the deadline would require pulling employees off projects more crucial to customer safety.
In a hearing on the request Monday, CPUC attorney Robert Cagen said that commission staff members were not happy with the idea of extending the deadline nor with the “very bad record keeping problem” at PG&E, but had little choice but to recommend an extension.
“They know their records far better than we do,” he said.
Wednesday, the administrative law judge overseeing the investigation agreed to grant the extension.
NTSB issues 'common sense' recommendations
When there’s a problem with a pipeline full of explosive gas, the fire department should be told about it.
That’s the gist of one of the “common sense” recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board issued Wednesday.
The recommendations resulted from testimony given to the NTSB in a hearing in March, during which it was revealed that the local fire department did not know the transmission line ran through the neighborhood. It also took at least 15 minutes for PG&E technicians to notify 911 about the rupture, leaving the fire department to sort out on their own what was causing the fire.
The NTSB is recommending that PG&E and other utilities be required to not only provide first responders with information about the locations of their pipelines, but also immediately notify them as soon as a rupture is indicated.