Federal prosecutors look into San Bruno explosion

(Brian Carmody)
April 27, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco is reviewing thousands of documents, as it examines the September explosion and fire that claimed eight lives. And PG&E has now identified 34 miles of additional pipeline that has faulty records.

The California Public Utilities Commission confirms it received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney's Office in February and complied in March. There is already a possible criminal investigation ongoing with the San Mateo County District Attorney and California Attorney General, working together.

On Wednesday evening, San Bruno residents attended an update meeting, organized by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough. CPUC and PG&E executives were there to answer questions. The meeting came on the same day there are new revelations about PG&E's recordkeeping difficulties.

In a letter earlier this month, PG&E told regulators that the company's records for 34 miles of pipeline in urban areas are probably wrong. Documents show those 34 miles are seamless, but the pipes were made before 1974.

"We know that seamless pipe greater than 24 inches was rare prior to 1974," said PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson.

After the September San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, regulators ordered PG&E to confirm what kind of pipes were underground. The utility thought the ruptured pipe was seamless, when it turned out to have multiple, faulty welds.

Without the post-San Bruno records search, the discrepancy on the 34 miles of pre-1974 pipe might never have been found.

"It's just another example of how PG&E's knowledge of what it's got underground is so imperfect and in ordinary times I guess they can operate that way, but now we know San Bruno exploded and they didn't know what they had underground in San Bruno, they've got to get their act together," said CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon.

The 34 miles in question are part of about 150 that are similar to the ruptured San Bruno pipe, and have inaccurate, incomplete or missing records. They will be tested and or replaced before the end of this year.

Those tests begin next month on about one-and-a-half miles in Mountain View and Antioch. Washington-state pipeline consultant Richard Kuprewicz says the company should be ready for the worst-case scenario.

"All the parties need to be developing a contingency plan if they find themselves with frequent hydro-test failures, they need to really move fairly quickly on replacing the pipe. It's that important," said Kuprewicz.

There are signs that the devastated Glenview neighborhood might begin rebuilding soon. Nellie Bishop's house is OK, but reminders of the disaster are everywhere.

"In the front here, I went to replace a plant about 10 minutes ago, before you got here, and as I dug down and I went to pull way down deep and I went to put the pot in, I bent down to do it and I could smell smoke still in the soil," said Bishop.

PG&E has maintained that even if it had known that ruptured pipe was seamed, had many seams and welds, it would not have maintained or operated it any differently.

At the town hall meeting Wednesday night, PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission were once again on the hot seat.

Burn victims Allen and Cindy Braun were at the meeting, with about 150 others, looking for answers.

When asked how he has recovered so far, Allen said he is taking things "a day at a time. One step forward, two steps back. It's going to take at least a couple more years."

The CPUC told the crowd that PG&E would hydro-test 152 miles of pipeline by the end of October at shareholders expense. There will be 91 tests conducted during a period when PG&E used to conduct only three or four.

Speier demanded answers from PG&E and the CPUC about the price of replacing old pipelines, something customers have been paying for all along.

"My question really is what happened to that money?" said Speier. "If it was shifted from providing safety to rate payers and shifted to profits for shareholders, then we have a big problem."

"The reason that it's taking us so long to answer the congresswoman's good question is that we're essentially conducting audit of that money, going back to the 80s. We're having to pull records out of PG&E archives and so on. We're being deliberate about it because we need to get that answer right," said executive director of the CPUC Paul Clanon.

"The way I believe is some of the PG&E hierarchy need to really be held accountable and I do mean accountable, more like jail time," said Tom Miller.


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