PG&E Fails to Produce Critical Safety Records

Responding to requests by the Investigative Unit for data on leak repair deadlines, PG&E says it doesn’t have time or resources to provide the information

The company that pledged to regain public trust following the San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people has declined to produce critical safety records NBC Bay Area has been trying to obtain for months. The Investigative Unit has made numerous requests to Pacific Gas & Electric to review documentation outlining how often the utility meets deadlines to repair potentially hazardous natural gas leaks, but the company has failed to produce that information.

Last year PG&E identified more than 32,639 natural gas leaks in its transmission and distribution systems. In one report provided to the Investigative Unit, PG&E lists the number gas leaks it fixed, but the report fails to identify the time it took to fix the leaks, and whether the repairs met federally mandated deadlines put in place to ensure leaks do not become dangerous.

After several attempts to dodge NBC Bay Area’s requests, a PG&E spokesperson ultimately said the company does not have the time or the resources to provide that information.

“(That’s) completely absurd for PG&E to be saying they don’t have the time to demonstrate their compliance with safety,” said Mark Toney, president of the utility watchdog group TURN.

Since the 2010 San Bruno explosion, PG&E has aired hundreds of commercials on television, radio and YouTube aimed at regaining credibility and trust. Some even included testimonials from CEO Tony Earley, who said in one ad that that company is “fully dedicated to bringing PG&E back” by providing a system that is affordable, safe and reliable.

That promise doesn’t sit well with San Bruno resident Kathy DeRenzi who survived the pipeline explosion.

When asked if PG&E has regained her trust she said, “Absolutely not. They scare me to death.”

Toney said that the San Bruno explosion and investigation shows why the public can no longer trust the utility. In 2011, his organization submitted a brief to the California Public Utilities Commission commenting on PG&E’s conduct and practices related to underground natural gas transmission pipelines.

TURN found that PG&E failed to:

  • Possess pressure test records for thousands of pipeline segments
  • Possess readily available records showing where it is transporting gas though reused or reconditioned pipeline segments
  • Create or retain records at any time to verify that it has properly performed work necessary to make reconditioned pipelines safe for use
  • Make any reasonable effort to verify the accuracy of the data in its geographic information system

“The San Bruno explosion and the investigation shows why we can no longer trust,” Toney said. “Trust—and verify—they say. It is so important.”

PG&E’s own records raise questions about how the company functions. Non-compliance reports to the CPUC show that PG&E has lost paperwork, failed to follow state regulations, and missed leak surveys. In one document filed in August, for example, PG&E identified 48 missing leak survey maps for 11 cities in San Mateo County. According to the report, when PG&E leak surveyors tested the area they discovered ten previously undetected gas leaks including three of the most serious and potentially hazardous leaks. 

“When you have a history of not being accountable, and not doing what you say you are going to do,” Toney said, “people have the right to ask and say—show us now.”

That history includes a deadly 2008 explosion in Rancho Cordova, east of Sacramento, which started with a gas leak that triggered a fire and killed one person and injured several others. It also includes a 2011 explosion in Cupertino, after which PG&E reportedly found seven underground leaks in pipes distributing gas to apartments and homes.

After first scheduling and then backing out of an interview with NBC Bay Area, PG&E issued a written statement saying, in part, that the company has made significant progress identifying and repairing natural gas leaks since the San Bruno explosion. PG&E’s response never addressed the specific ‘compliance with federally mandated deadlines’ issue requested by NBC Bay Area.

When asked his reaction to PG&E’s response to requests for information on leak repair deadlines, state Sen. Jerry Hill said, “It is outrageous. It is truly outrageous because PG&E has failed us.”

Hill represents the people of San Bruno, and recognizing PG&E’s recent history there, said the utility company’s decision to keep its gas leak repair records secret is unacceptable.

“In the shadow of San Bruno they should open all of their records any time anyone asks,” Hill said. “Instead of spending the millions of dollars on PR, on ads in newspapers, on TV commercials, they should spend the money, if necessary, to open their records.”

And NBC Bay Area’s investigation found the CPUC—the commission responsible for regulating PG&E—does not require the utility to file reports showing it has met deadlines to repair gas leaks.

After several calls to talk with CPUC executive director Paul Clanon were not returned, Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski met him at the state capitol in Sacramento. When asked why the PUC is allowing PG&E to hide leak survey information, Clanon said, “The public has a right to see safety information.”

Clanon said he was unaware of the Investigative Unit’s specific request but that the public has his support in obtaining the critical safety records from PG&E.

DeRenzi said PG&E has to be more accountable.

“Somebody has to say, wait a minute, safety is a priority for all of us,” she said.

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