Mike Koozmin/Special to The S.F. ExaminerPG&E leak surveyor Ken Myers

PG&E allegedly ignored gas 'time bomb,' whistleblower says

A PG&E surveyor who participated in a systemwide survey of pipelines in recent years has accused the utility of delaying repairs on leaks he discovered, including some that could pose a danger to people and property.

PG&E’s pipeline system had been under scrutiny even before the 2010 San Bruno explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed a suburban neighborhood. In 2008, after an internal audit found that leaks were being missed, the utility arranged an accelerated leak survey to address the concerns of employees and regulators.

Leak surveyor Ken Myers, who had worked for the company since 1996, was assigned to the project in 2009, and he said he soon realized PG&E was not keeping up with its required repair schedule.

Federal regulations do not require gas utilities to repair very minor leaks; instead, they must be monitored regularly in case they become hazardous. But according to notes and records Myers and a colleague provided, sometimes leaks deemed to be hazardous during the recent survey were not repaired within the required time frame.

One leak in front of a business in Redding was still seeping gas five months after he checked it, Myers said. The escaping substance, first documented in 1991, consisted of 12 percent natural gas in July 2011. Myers determined it needed to be repaired in 90 days. Yet when he and several colleagues returned with California Public Utilities Commission inspectors in November, the leak was spewing 95 percent natural gas. Myers said the group called a PG&E repair crew right away.

“PG&E has been getting away with this for years,” Myers said. “We’re basically sitting on a ticking time bomb.”

PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson was not familiar with Myers’ allegations, but said the utility takes whistle-blowers

“We strongly encourage our employees to voice safety concerns,” he said. “If Mr. Myers has specific information, we will investigate those concerns.”

Myers said he and his colleagues also found numerous gas leaks in or around customers’ meters. While most of the leaks are probably not dangerous, when gas is leaking from the customer’s side of a meter, it does affect the customer’s bill.

Until recently, surveyors placed a yellow zip tie on a meter to indicate that it was leaking and needed repair the next time a technician visited a home or business, Myers said. But last November, PG&E sent a memo to surveyors asking them to stop the practice because it “caused customer concern.”

Swanson said the zip ties had been used by leak surveyors to inform gas service representatives that they needed to make repairs. But service workers now have their own sensitive equipment, he said, negating the need for the indicator.

“Really, we’re talking about very tiny leaks,” Swanson said, adding that they were being repaired as part of an “ongoing and aggressive action to address customer concern.”

Swanson said the utility planned to repair all meter leaks, which number about 150,000, by the end of 2013.
The zip tie memo alarmed Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who laid out his concerns this month in a letter to the CPUC.

“A customer certainly has a right to know and should know if there’s a leak at their house,” Hill said. “When you keep hearing, almost weekly, of things like this, it’s a problem.”

Richard Steffen, an aide to Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo County, said Myers’ claims about meter leaks were troubling, especially since homeowners were not informed.

“They have a right to know, even if it’s not a risk,” Steffen said.

Steffen said Speier’s correspondence with the utilities commission suggested that there was little to fear from leaks, beyond the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But ideally, he said, the utilities commission should do its own leak inspections, rather than relying solely on PG&E to provide accurate information.

“We want them out in the field,” he said.

A spokesman for the regulator declined to comment.


About the leaks

PG&E says it has about 200,000 active leak indications, most of which have been deemed non-hazardous.

0 at Grade 1
Deemed hazardous. Immediate repair required.

445 at Grade 2+
Leak is not immediately hazardous but could be hazardous in the future; must be repaired within 90 days.

4,200 at Grade 2
Not immediately hazardous but must be repaired within 15 months (formerly 18 months).

45,690 at Grade 3
Not hazardous and can reasonably be expected to remain non-hazardous. Must be recorded and monitored every 15 months (previously 5 years).

150,000 ungraded meter leaks
Leaking from an aboveground apparatus. Usually nonhazardous.

Source: PG&E

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