Someone at Pacific Gas & Electric apparently thought the Bay Area city of San Carlos should have seen the recent corporate e-mails warning of serious defects in a major gas pipeline when the company assured the city last month that the line tested fine.
The city declared a state of emergency on Friday after receiving at least seven e-mails from November 2012, which included information from an anonymous PG&E engineer casting doubt on the safety of Line 147. That line connects with Line 132, the line that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood in San Bruno on September 10, 2010.
City officials asked PG&E to shut down the line. The company refused, so the city asked for a temporary injunction from San Mateo County Superior Court Judge George Marian. PG&E told the city it would reduce pressure on the line 20%, but by then the city had an order from the judge telling the utility to shut it down.
PG&E spent the third anniversary of the San Bruno blast announcing a settlement with the last batch of victims. The utility has paid $565 million to around 500 people and given the city $70 million. It still faces a $2.5 billion penalty from the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
State regulators have accused the utility of shoddy record keeping, failure to do required tests, control room breakdowns, a crummy emergency response and a culture that “emphasized profits over safety.”
A court hearing is scheduled for October 24 to discuss Line 147 and explain the e-mails.
The PG&E engineer wrote that his crew, while doing some corrosion repair, stumbled on some ancient seam welds from 1929, similar to the ones that gave out in San Bruno, although records showed much newer pipe. The pipe was high-powered hydro-tested in 2011, after the San Bruno explosion, and passed. But the engineer wondered if that was a good thing.
The e-mails give voice to his and his co-workers unfolding suspicions beginning on November 14, when the engineer notes a leak repair that turns up some pipe that doesn’t fit specifications in the computer. The next day, as they ponder the discovery, they realize the pipe wall is much thinner than they thought.
On the 17th, it all comes together.
“It is thin wall pipe and now we have found external corrosion on it. Could the recent hydrotest [have] contributed to additional cracking on this pipe and essentially activated a threat? Are we sitting on a San Bruno situation? With fatigue crack growth over many years? Is the pipe cracked and near failure? I don’t want people to panic but seems like we should consider this and probably move this pipe up the PSEP priority for replacement.”
City officials said they were notified as late as September 16 by a high-ranking PG&E executive that Line 147 was safe.