PG&E ignored gaps in data, engineer says
Jaxon Van Derbeken - San Francisco Chronicle
Published 09:33 p.m., Tuesday, July 31, 2012
A key Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas engineer testified that he repeatedly told his bosses the company was relying on flawed data to vouch for the safety of its gas transmission lines before the San Bruno disaster, but that the utility took no steps to fix the problem.
In a civil deposition that attorneys for 350 plaintiffs filed Tuesday in San Mateo County Superior Court, PG&E's Todd Arnett said gas-system managers had ignored his and other employees' concerns that the company was relying on incomplete and inaccurate records contained in its geographic information system.
"Over the years, I'd raised it to superiors and folks that may have known about that, to ensure that they had the same understanding of the quality of the data," Arnett said in his deposition taken in March.
"Weren't you concerned, sir, that because there were errors in the GIS survey sheets for PG&E, that people who lived along the pipeline could be exposed to death or injury?" asked Steven Campora, a lawyer who represented the family of a woman and her daughter who died in the blast.
"That general concern, yes," Arnett answered.
Ignorance called key factor
Federal investigators determined that a major factor in the explosion was PG&E's ignorance that its pipe had a seam running down the length of the line, which ruptured at an incomplete weld in San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010. Such a seam would have been noted on an accurate geographic information system report, and if it had, PG&E would have been legally obligated to prove it was in good condition.
The explosion and fire killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. PG&E settled the last of the wrongful-death suits stemming from the disaster last week, but 350 other suits filed by San Bruno residents have been consolidated and are scheduled to go to trial in October.
PG&E also faces hundreds of millions of dollars in potential regulatory fines for mishandling the San Bruno pipe, losing track of population growth around its gas lines, and maintaining shoddy records.
Arnett said he could not recall what, if anything, his superiors had said or done when he complained "a handful of times" about the record-keeping problem. The company's geographic information system is supposed to list details such as pipeline history and characteristics such as welds, strength and construction, but federal and state regulators found after the San Bruno disaster that it was filled with errors and information gaps.
"To your knowledge, after you expressed your concerns to your superiors, were there any changes in policy at PG&E about the use of the GIS system?" Campora asked.
"Not to my knowledge, no," Arnett replied.
Arnett also said other PG&E engineers had worried about making critical decisions about pipeline safety in light of the data gaps, which he said were "commonly known" in the company.
'A ton of errors,' e-mail says
At least one PG&E gas-system official, Bill Manegold, testified he had been aware of the problems since he joined the company in 2005. Chris Johns, PG&E's president, said in a deposition in June that he had been told only after the San Bruno blast that the geographic information system "could use some improvement."
Lawyers for victims and their families also pressed Arnett about a March 2009 internal e-mail referring to the flawed records for the San Bruno pipe, known as Line 132, and two parallel lines running from Milpitas to San Francisco, lines 101 and 109.
"There are a ton of errors in GIS for transmission lines 101, 109 and 132," said one e-mail, written by PG&E engineer Drew Kelly, who ultimately relied on those records in researching long-term management plans for Line 132.
Memo justified spiking
Arnett said that before he got that e-mail, he believed there might be "a few" problems with those lines.
After the blast, PG&E began a major project to validate the accuracy of the information about its transmission pipelines. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, however, still expressed alarm about the state of PG&E data as of August 2011.
Arnett was among the PG&E officials involved in spiking the gas pressure on Line 132 to just beyond the pipeline's legal maximum in December 2008, an action the company took in the mistaken belief that if it failed to do so, the line's federally approved limit would be reduced.
Arnett justified the action in a memo documenting the $45,000 expense for the spiking exercise. State regulators later concluded that the spiking should have legally required PG&E to check for damage to the pipeline, an inspection that might well have caught the fatally flawed San Bruno weld.
Arnett concluded that spiking the pressure - to avoid a reduced maximum on the line and prospect of a forced inspection should gas levels accidentally surge past the lowered cap - would be "much less painful" than an inspection.
Arnett testified that he had been referring to the problems involved in taking a line out of service for an inspection, "as well as financial considerations that the consumers would pay for."
"Oh, so you're saying that it would be painful because the consumers are going to be stuck with the cost for PG&E to make sure the line is safe - is that right?" asked Frank Pitre, one of the lawyers in the case.
"I'm saying that the nature of our rates and costs were primarily passed on to the consumer," Arnett said.
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