CPUC Report Blasts PG&E's Competence - NBC Bay Area

CPUC Report Blasts PG&E's Competence



    12 Ways to Effortlessly Surprise Your Friends and Co-Workers
    Getty Images
    A charred car sits in the driveway of a home that was destroyed by fire following a deadly gas main explosion on September 13, 2010 in San Bruno.

    An independent panel appointed by the California Public Utilities  Commission issued a report Thursday blasting PG&E's technical competence and  pipeline integrity management procedures.

    The panel found that shortcomings in those and other areas not  only contributed to last year's San Bruno pipeline explosion, which left  eight people dead and 35 homes destroyed, but they also have led to a flawed  response to the disaster.

    "We met many capable people," at PG&E, business advisor and  panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds told the CPUC today. "Somehow that has not  created an atmosphere where inquiry, thinking and curiosity mesh together in  a way that is fulsome."

    She and the other four members of the panel found that PG&E's  pipeline integrity management program had focused more on worker safety than  the safety of the system.

    The company's record keeping, organizational effectiveness, and  resource allocation also came under fire, as did its response to the San  Bruno explosion, the five-stage "Pipeline 2020" improvement program.

    "Pipeline 2020 is not a plan," Reynolds said, calling the  materials "reactive" and underdeveloped.

    PG&E released a statement saying the company "strongly agrees"  with the panelist's comments and will work with the CPUC to improve its  pipeline safety.

    "It's clear, as we've openly acknowledged, that we need to make  major improvements in our operations and culture in order to deliver the  performance our customers rightly expect -- and that we expect from  ourselves," the company said.

    Although the National Transportation Safety Board is responsible  for identifying the root causes of the explosion, the independent panel found  that it could not separate technical incompetence from the problems it  identified with PG&E's safety record, according to the 204-page report.

    Reynolds said PG&E's staff is committed and has good technical  skills, but that they are under-trained and need to specialize more. The  company is also understaffed, the panel found.

    "Only one senior person was an engineer, and did not have much gas  experience," panelist Karl Pister, an engineering professor emeritus, told  the CPUC.

    He said the company did not seem to grasp the importance of  systems engineering, which is necessary for construction, evaluation and  maintenance of gas transmission lines.

    As a result, the company has been focused on "cataloguing  information" instead of collecting useful data that can be used to make  inferences about the pipelines, Pister said.

    He and Reynolds said widespread hydrostatic pressure testing of  pipelines, which PG&E has vowed to do in the wake of the explosion, is not as  valuable as doing more in-depth testing of fewer miles.

    Hydrostatic testing involves raising the pressure of the pipe  enough to detect a leak but not burst the pipe, Reynolds said.

    But if there's a metallurgical anomaly, the testing can actually  weaken the pipe, she said. It's therefore important to take core samples of  the piping.

    "We think this is a good example of how in the rush to be safe we  can sort of take on the law of unintended consequences," she said.

    Pister also cautioned against rushing to install electronic  shut-off valves without looking at the impact it would have on the overall  pipe system. He said the company needed to bring in people who understand the  complexity of the issues it's facing.

    "No one solution is right," he said. "It's a system evaluation  design problem. You can't ad hoc that one." 

    The group also found that PG&E has excessive levels of management  and an inconsistent expertise within the management ranks, which has been  coupled with an overemphasis on financial performance, according to the  report.

      The independent panel was assembled about a month after the Sept.  9, 2010, pipeline explosion ripped through the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood.

    Its other members are University of California, Davis chancellor  emeritus Larry Vanderhoef,

    CPUC President Michael Peevey thanked the panel and called the  report "deeply disturbing" at today's meeting.

    He said the commission will "do its damndest" to implement the  changes recommended in the report, which included guidelines for both PG&E  and the CPUC.