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Robin Wilkey
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California Pipeline Safety Assessment Reveals Immediate Hazards, Regulators Allegedly Ignored Warnings For Years

Posted: 03/15/2012 8:25 pm Updated: 03/16/2012 1:09 am

California Pipeline Safety
A photo at the intersection of Claremont and Fairmont Drives shows the destruction of the San Bruno blast.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Public Utilities Commission's Risk Assessment Unit released a report on gas pipeline safety in California on Wednesday. And the results are alarming.

The CPUC uncovered 17 potential hazards that immediately impact public safety. The most urgent issue: the presence of gas pipelines made from a 1970s brand of plastic pipe called Aldyl-A that's susceptible to cracking when under pressure -- the same plastic used in the pipes that caused two Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosions in 2011.

But as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the CPUC, which regulates utility companies throughout the state, has allegedly known about the hazardous pipes since the National Transportation Safety Board issued a warning in 1998, and has never done anything about it. And allegedly, PG&E has known about the defect since 1982.

"We phased out Aldyl-A in the 1980s," explained PG&E Spokesman Brian Swanson to The Huffington Post. "But there is still about 8,000 miles of pipe remaining." Swanson explained that PG&E has begun replacing the pipeline where leaks have been reported, but was mum about why the pipes were not replaced earlier.

"PG&E knew for over twenty years and didn't do anything about it," said California Assemblyman Jerry Hill to HuffPost.

But according to Hill, the fact the CPUC (which regulates PG&E) didn't do something about it when the agency learned of the hazard, is especially egregious.

"This culture of complacency has plagued the CPUC for years," said Hill.

The allegedly ignored warning has inspired Hill (whose district includes San Bruno, which suffered a deadly pipeline explosion in 2010) to draft a bill that would prohibit state regulators from ignoring National Transportation Safety Board warnings.

The Chronicle reported on the CPUC's cavalier attitude towards the warnings:

At a gas-safety workshop in September, Sunil Shori, a gas engineer with the [California Public Utilities] commission, said Aldyl-A leakage rates were "not drastically different" from other types of plastic lines, although he acknowledged that the material was "not as tough" as later plastics and was prone to sudden rips from cracking.

The next day, Sept. 27, the Roseville pipeline exploded. The utilities commission is investigating both failures.

The commission's task force said it would seek details about how widely Aldyl-A is used throughout the state. PG&E and other utilities nationwide have been reporting Aldyl-A failure rates to an industry-run data-tracking system, which is not required to share its findings with state regulators.

Wednesday's report is the second disheartening news about pipeline safety this week.

On Monday, the CPUC's Consumer Protection and Safety Division released its analysis of PG&E's shoddy recordkeeping system prior to the San Bruno disaster, part of the ongoing investigation following the incident.

"The reports conclude that PG&E's gas transmission records and safety related documents were scattered, disorganized, duplicated, and were difficult, if not impossible, to access in a prompt and efficient matter," wrote the CPUC in the report. "Alleged PG&E recordkeeping failures include the location of reused pipe in service, numbers and conditions of leaks, pressure information and other information critical to pipeline safety."

Swanson acknowledged the missteps in recordkeeping, but assured the HuffPost that PG&E was working aggressively towards a solution.

"In the past year, we have scanned and stored 2.5 million paper documents into an electronic system," he said. "We are now using a standard that is unprecedented in the industry."

But opponents claim the efforts are too little, too late.

The recordkeeping reports also raise eyebrows about another one of the immediate hazards mentioned by the CPUC in the safety report: excavation damage during dig-ins. "Dig-ins remain the primary cause of pipeline incidents," wrote the CPUC in the report.

CPUC spokesman Christopher Chow told HuffPost that the majority of excavation damages are caused by third parties failing to call 811, the country's "call before you dig" number, prior to digging. However, the recordkeeping reports suggest that 811 may not have had the information anyway.

"If PG&E didn't know where their pipeline was located, they wouldn't know where to tell a third party where it was located, either," Hill told HuffPost. "The interesting part is that now PG&E wants ratepayers to pay billions of dollars to build a data system to help them figure it out. That's money ratepayers have already paid for through service fees; money that PG&E should have been using to keep their records in order all along like any other company."

While the CPUC and PG&E are reportedly working hard to clean up the mess from the recent pipeline disasters, the reports reveal that we have only reached the tip of the iceberg.

Look through our slideshow below for photos from the San Bruno blast of September 2010:

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