By Martin Ricard
Residents learned about PG&E's pledge to pressure-test 150 miles of pipeline following scrutiny of its operation of the pipeline that exploded in San Bruno, in addition to other efforts taking place to help residents recover from the fire.
For residents like Mike Zamattia, Wednesday's town hall meeting was more of the same.
Representatives from PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission listened to residents’ questions about how something like the tragic Sept. 9 gas explosion and fire could happen, and then promised they would take steps to make sure nothing like that would ever happen again.
But those have been the same platitudes residents have heard since the explosion. And while both PG&E and the CPUC have told people they would keep themselves accountable with new pipeline safety practices and oversight, few people are convinced they’re being completely transparent as possible.
“It’s all the same story to me,” Zamattia said after the two-hour town hall at the senior center. “The only thing we don’t have is the nutcracker—what happened.”
The investigation into the explosion, which left eight people dead and 38 homes destroyed in the Crestmoor neighborhood, is still ongoing as the National Transportation Safety Board and the CPUC are both looking into what led up to the disaster.
However, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who organized the meeting along with the City Council, brought an update Wednesday, saying the NTSB investigation should be completed by the end of August. Paul Clanon, the executive director for the CPUC, told the audience the independent panel investigating the disaster for the commission is now expected to release its results in May.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office also announced Wednesday that it is opening an investigation as well, but no other details were released about what the investigation would entail.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who was in attendance at the meeting, said the fact that the U.S. Attorney’s Office made an announcement about an investigation was significant.
During the meeting, Speier gave residents several new updates about the ongoing recovery efforts following the fire, including that the last burn victim at Saint Francis Hospital in San Francisco had been recently released from the burn center and is now in rehabiliation. She even gave special recognition to residents Allen and Cindy Braun, who were badly burned in the fire and showed up at the senior center.
Speier also gave residents an update about PG&E’s latest pipeline safety action in which the utility has pledged to pressure-test 150 miles of gas transmission pipelines throughout its system. During the NTSB’s March hearing in Washington, D.C., about the pipeline explosion, investigators chided PG&E for not using the best inspection methods to test Line 132—the pipeline that ruptured in the Crestmoor neighborhoo d.
Pipeline safety experts have said the best inspection method is a so-called hydrotest in which water is pumped through the pipeline at a high pressure to gauge the line’s maximum operating pressure and to check for weaknesses.
Kirk Johnson, PG&E’s vice president of gas engineering and operations, said the utility will also be conducting pressure tests on a 3-mile section of pipe at PG&E’s Healy Station on Crestwood Drive and on a 4-mile section of pipe south of the San Andreas Station near Skyline Boulevard.
The testing, Johnson said, represents a significant amount of work the utility has promised to carry out in the aftermath of the explosion.
“This is a huge change for us in terms of the amount of work we’re going to be doing,” he said.
For the CPUC’s part, Clanon said he realized the commission’s credibility was on the line with its pipeline safety oversight, agreeing that mistakes were made by allowing gas transmission lines such as Line 132—which weren’t required to be pressure-tested because they were built before 1961—to go years without being properly inspected.
However, “the single most important thing the CPUC is doing right now is turning the page on grandfathering," Clanon said. "Pipelines have got to be tested or they’ve got to be replaced so that they can be tested.”
Zamattia, whose home on Claremont Drive was damaged in the fire, still couldn’t help but wonder after the meeting: Why didn’t anyone think of that before?
And why haven’t people been properly held accountable for their mistakes? he added, alluding to the recent news that PG&E Corp. CEO Peter Darbee is stepping down from his post at the end of the month with a $35 million pension.
Betty Kunze has had the same frustration at every meeting she has attended about the fire because pipeline officials say they’re going to be transparent and then new information is revealed later that belies their claims.
“I guess I still just have hard feelings toward PG&E,” Kunze said.
However, she admitted, she wasn’t completely dissatisfied with everything that took place at the meeting.
“I really appreciate Congresswoman Speier, who has worked hard for us,” Kunze said. “She has been holding their feet to the fire.”
City officials also announced that the city is planning another gathering on May 22 for the Crestmoor neighborhood. The event will take place at City Park, and details will be sent out soon.
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