By Jaxon Van Derbeken
State lawmakers pressed Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on Wednesday to reveal which of its urban gas transmission lines had been subjected to intentional pressure spikes since 2003, a practice that experts fear could have weakened the pipes.
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he met with a top official from the utility, Kent Kauss, and demanded that PG&E tell the public which lines the company had pushed to their legal limits.
The Chronicle reported Sunday that PG&E said it had temporarily increased pressures on 11 transmission lines since 2003, including the San Bruno pipeline that exploded Sept. 9, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
The company declined to identify the other 10 lines. A spokesman said Wednesday that PG&E is still checking its records to determine the circumstances and location of each of the pressure increases.
Hill said it is implausible that the company knows how many lines had been subjected to pressure surges but does not know when and where those had occurred.
He also said that Kauss had told him the utility might have increased pressure on more than the 11 lines, but that he did not provide details.
"They need to come clean with those locations, and quickly," Hill said. "This is a frightening situation and something that needs to be addressed quickly."
Hill said Kauss "showed me a list and a little chart" about the pipelines' locations, "but said it's not ready for public release."
Kauss told him they would release the list, but did not say when, Hill said.
Letter to PUC
He said he sent a letter Wednesday to regulators at the state Public Utilities Commission about the pressure spike issue. "They need to find out where those pipes are, what is their status, what type of pipe is involved, what the testing was," Hill said.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said the commission should "immediately determine the condition" of the 10 surviving pipelines. "They could be sitting on a time bomb."
A spokeswoman for the commission did not respond to a request for comment.
PG&E first explained the pressure surges by saying it had been required by federal law to increase gas levels to their legal maximum once every five years. It later backtracked and said there was no such federal law, and that it had increased pressures to preserve "operational flexibility."
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, said commission regulators had told her office that both they and PG&E had at some point asked federal officials for guidance on whether the pressure spikes were needed, and had received no reply.
In public, the state commission has been silent about whether it knew of PG&E's pressure-spiking practices.
Richard Clark, head of consumer protection and safety for the commission, summarized the issue to Speier's office in an e-mail that said his agency "participated in some of PG&E's discussions" about the issue with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Clark said in an e-mail to The Chronicle that the discussions happened before the San Bruno explosion but that he did not know when.
Officials at the federal agency said they were looking into the matter.
'It's a cop-out'
"I think it's a cop-out," Speier said of PG&E's actions. "They say, 'We asked, therefore we are going to do what we wanted to do in the first place.' "
The utility suspended the spiking practice after the San Bruno disaster, although it defended the increases as "very safe."
Critics suspect that PG&E spiked pressures in reaction to a 2002 federal law that dictated how a pipeline running under a populated region would be regulated. That regulation level was based in part on the peak pressure at which a pipeline was run in the previous five years.
Once that five-year peak was set for older lines that have not undergone time-consuming and expensive water-pressure testing - which is the case for much of PG&E's urban network in Northern and Central California - the law requires such tests if a pipeline's pressure ever spikes above the peak.
In the case of the 11 lines, the utility has said, their five-year peaks were normally lower than their legal maximum pressures because they were connected to weaker lines.
Some critics suspect that PG&E began spiking pressure on 11 lines to the legal limit to establish a higher inspection threshold and avoid the need for the rigorous water-pressure tests should an accidental surge occur.
Legal but risky
Experts say that running lines at their legal capacity - while allowed by law - was a gamble. Lines can be weakened each time pressure is spiked, to a point where they could fail at lower pressures, they say.
The San Bruno line, which PG&E normally ran at 375 pounds per square inch, had a maximum capacity of 400 pounds. When it exploded, it had spiked to 386 pounds.
James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said PG&E's practice amounted to "gaming the system."
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration said in a statement last week that "in some cases, raising the pressure on a line can heighten the risk of problems on the line."
Also, since the San Bruno disaster, federal authorities have questioned the accuracy of records that PG&E used to set capacities on its 1,800 miles of urban transmission lines. State regulators say hundreds of miles might have to be water-pressure tested because of flawed or nonexistent records.
The utility's records for the San Bruno line did not reflect the fact that it was built with seams, which could have led PG&E to set a higher pressure maximum than was actually safe. Federal investigators have not identified that as a cause of the disaster, but say they are looking at the quality of the seam welds.
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Lawmakers push PG&E to identify spiked gas lines
By Jaxon Van Derbeken