Pipeline panel suggests better oversight over PG&E

December 8, 2010 12:30:34 AM PST
A well-known pipeline expert weighed in on the natural gas explosion in San Bruno. The pipeline disaster in September leveled the neighborhood and killed eight people, leading to calls for tougher laws, but the key could be in enforcing the existing ones.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, announced new legislation on Monday in Sacramento that would tighten up oversight of pipeline safety regulations. He says Tuesday's meeting is his way of bringing Sacramento to San Bruno. The legislators, PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission, and residents gathered together.

Currently, the exploded pipeline sits partially submerged in water, the road it sits under is still closed to traffic, and work continues on the damaged homes that survived.

"There has been lax oversight in California. The California Public Utilities Commission has not done their job responsibly and fairly and equitably around this state and that has created a problem," said Hill.

"That's so far off the mark is almost laughable honestly. I mean, the CPUC's effort over the last 10 years has been rated very high by the feds. That's not to say we can't improve it," said CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon.

San Bruno residents will heard from Rick Kuprewicz, a Seattle-based expert on gas infrastructure and safety. He said the federal government created good safety regulations after some horrific accidents.

"The federal rulemaking, integrity management rules, that were promulgated almost 10 years ago are quite well written. Now, whether or not people are following them is a different issue," said Kuprewicz.

"We follow every federal regulation. We also look forward in working with Assemblymen Hill on his bill and working closely with state and legislative leaders as they work to create a thorough and comprehensive pipeline safety bill," said PG&E spokesman Joe Molica.

Kuprewicz said he's not here to make accusations or offer an opinion of what caused the accident.

"I think in the area of inspections, there's going to be a whole lot more discussion about the capabilities and the incapabilities of various inspection methods and then I think the public will understand that the regulators need to help make sure everyone's doing this stuff," said Kuprewicz.

"What we're concerned about is that they absolutely, positively don't put that pipe back in the neighborhood. Secondly, that they tell people where those pipes are," said San Bruno resident Rick Briskin.

"Maybe PG&E could tell us all to move, that the pipe was there before us," said San Bruno resident Clarence Press.

After the meeting, people in San Bruno still feel like they aren't getting the answers they need and deserve. The panel was supposed to help them better understand what happened when the pipeline ruptured. However, residents left the meeting shaking their heads.

At one point, an engineer asked, "It's been three months. It's a pipe. How long does it take to figure out what when wrong? There are only so many scenarios."

Still, answers were tough to come by. A total of four assembly members fired questions at representatives from PG&E and the CPUC, which oversees PG&E. The CPUC representative admitted the agency needs more transparency and more inspectors, but the admission wasn't enough for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

"Well, I know we're making you squirm at little bit, but you know, that's why you get paid the big bucks and maybe you should look at that some time too in terms of leadership because what I'm hearing here is the sidestepping of true accountability," said Ammiano.

Ammiano was especially frustrated with the answer officials from PG&E and the CPUC gave about $5 million that was supposed to be spent in San Bruno.

"They were supposed to use that $5 million revenue for maintenance on this specific pipe and they didn't do it. Well, where did the money go?" asked Ammiano.

"The money went to other pipeline maintenance, other pipeline projects. PG&E didn't pocket that money. PG&E spent it on other pipeline projects," said PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon.

Ammiano Residents say they did like the second half of the night when industry experts gave their opinions and ideas about the situation and what could be done. Audience members liked some of their suggestions for PG&E, but the PG&E representative had already left by that point.

As far as the information they got from PG&E, residents say it was exactly what they have heard before at previous town hall meetings. They say it wasn't anything new. In fact, one man said he came to the meeting hoping to hear an apology.

Ammiano said he thinks progress was made. He said the more people demand accountability, the more likely they are to get it.

The NTSB's second preliminary report is due out sometime between next week and the end of the year.


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