Mercury News
By Steve Johnson and Paul Rogers

Nearly one year after a PG&E pipeline exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people and shattering a neighborhood, are we any safer?

Thanks to the increased scrutiny of PG&E by state regulators and changes the company has made, the answer would seem to be yes, at least marginally. But thousands of pages of internal documents PG&E has turned over to the California Public Utilities Commission and federal investigators since the accident suggest that many threats remain. Describing such things as decades of substandard welds and PG&E’s admission that it can’t find its own pipeline paperwork, the records reveal a company in seeming disarray.

That means no one — not even PG&E — is sure what dangers may still lurk underground.

“Feeling safer is not enough — we need to know that we are safer,” said Bob Bea, professor emeritus of engineering at UC Berkeley. “I have no confidence that PG&E or the CPUC have good handles on these uncertainties and how they should be managed.”

What caused the blast is still unknown. The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to disclose the findings of its investigation into the Sept. 9 disaster Tuesday, and it could provide a blueprint for state regulators to upgrade California’s natural gas system.

But the federal agency might not say conclusively why the shoddily welded pipe split apart 54 years after it was installed, which could make it difficult to identify needed improvements.

And whatever decisions are made to bolster pipeline safety are sure to be complicated by the potential cost to the public.

Bernstein Research, which analyzes utility finances, has estimated that PG&E’s legal costs, potential fines and pipeline tests stemming from the San Bruno disaster could total $2.4 billion. While PG&E’s insurance and shareholders are likely to bear much of the cost, $2.4 billion works out to an average of $558 for each of the company’s 4.3 million natural gas customers.

In addition, PG&E on Friday proposed about $2.2 billion in pipeline upgrades through 2014, with its customers bearing 90 percent of the cost.

Resistance already is mounting against dumping such staggering costs onto consumers.

“In seeking to vigilantly protect the safety of California’s residents and ratepayers,” the advocacy group Greenlining Institute warned recently, “the commission must take care not to overspend in the name of safety.”

Some steps to make us safer already have been taken.

As a precaution after the San Bruno blast, state regulators required PG&E to cut the gas pressure in more than a dozen aged pipes, including some in the Bay Area. PG&E by year’s end also is supposed to upgrade more than 100 miles of older gas lines by replacing them or checking them for cracks with water-pressure tests.

In addition, PG&E recently has hired 74 gas engineers to keep its pipelines operating properly — boosting its total to 195 — put maps of its pipelines on its website for the public, conducted disaster drills with emergency officials, and selected a new CEO and made other management changes, including naming Nick Stavropoulos to oversee its natural gas business.

A 32-year veteran of the industry who joined PG&E in June from National Grid, an energy company in New England, Stavropoulos acknowledged that “nobody can guarantee that there will never be another gas pipeline accident in the Bay Area.” That’s why he believes “you have to be vigilant every day. You can never lose focus. That’s the lesson of San Bruno.”

Nonetheless, he insisted PG&E is on the right path.

“I came here with the strong belief that the senior leadership of the company was serious about fixing these problems,” Stavropoulos said. He added that since the San Bruno disaster, “absolutely, the system is safer. And it is getting safer every day.”

Paul Clanon, the PUC’s executive director, agreed that “we are a lot safer than we were Sept. 9.” But, he said, that was largely because the scrutiny PG&E is now under from regulatory authorities “is just vastly heightened.”

This year, his agency launched an investigation of PG&E’s record-keeping lapses, and it is considering ways to improve gas operations statewide, from penalizing violators more heavily to bolstering protections for utility workers who blow the whistle on gas safety problems. The PUC also is doubling its gas-inspection staff and considering giving the inspectors the power to fine utilities, instead of having to ask the five-member commission to approve such sanctions.

Nonetheless, Patrick Pizzo, a metallurgical failure expert and professor emeritus at San Jose State, said he worries about PG&E’s long history of leaky pipes, substandard welds and inconsistent gas line documentation.

“This concerns me,” he said, especially if other pipes contain defects like those discovered in the ruptured San Bruno segment. “Could we have another, similar event? I would say it is possible.”

That caution seems warranted, given what we still don’t know about the company’s gas lines.

PG&E has declined to comment on who installed the short, poorly welded segments of pipe where the San Bruno rupture occurred. That has aroused fears the same crew may have done shoddy work throughout the Bay Area. Moreover, while the ruptured San Bruno pipe was riddled with bad welds, it’s not clear why one of them suddenly tore apart after an electrical glitch at a Milpitas gas-line terminal caused a slight boost in pressure.

One theory is the pipe had been fatally weakened by a nearby 2008 sewer project that used a ground-shaking procedure called pipe bursting. PG&E has urged federal investigators to give the sewer project more study. Yet the company was vague when this newspaper asked if it was checking the integrity of other pipes near previous pipe-bursting projects, saying, “PG&E does not track pipe bursting activities by themselves at this time.”

Another theory is that fluctuations in the San Bruno pipe’s pressure over the years — mostly in response to varying demands for gas — caused an already-existing crack in one of the bad welds to lengthen to the breaking point. That’s worrisome because PG&E has a long history of welding flaws. If more such defects lurk within PG&E’s pipes, they also might have been weakened by the pressure changes. Further raising the risk for defective pipes is the shaking that comes from earthquakes, experts say.

Moreover, PG&E recently said it wants to return the pressure in many of the lines to what it had been before the explosion, with some of the increases in time for winter, when demand goes up.

PUC executive director Clanon said he’d oppose boosting the pressure until those pipes are replaced or water-tested. But even that might not ensure the public is protected. Some experts say water tests may not detect every flaw and could cause a few shoddy welds to worsen before the line is put back into service.

Though natural gas disasters are rare events, it’s impossible to rule out another San Bruno disaster occurring. Moreover, the cascade of revelations about PG&E’s poorly welded pipes and other failings since the explosion have shaken many people, including 66-year-old Alice Barnes.

“What I have learned in the last 11 months is PG&E cut corners, they did not keep records, they took many, many dangerous risks,” said the retired Navy contracting officer and longtime community activist, who lives alone with her dog next to a major gas line running through San Bruno. “It has been discouraging. I feel less safe, exponentially less safe.”

Barnes says she has lost trust in PG&E. But having suffered several heart attacks, she tries not to get too worked up over the potential danger posed by the company’s pipelines.

“I’m tired and I’m in poor health,” she said. “So I go to sleep at night and say my prayers.”

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