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Peninsula City Leaders Call For Pipeline Safety Transparency At Legislative Hearing

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A law enforcement official runs towards a massive fire in a residential neighborhood September 9, 2010 in San Bruno. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A law enforcement official runs towards a massive fire in a residential neighborhood September 9, 2010 in San Bruno. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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SAN CARLOS (CBS SF) — An array of officials from San Bruno, San Carlos and other Peninsula cities called at a state legislative hearing in San Carlos Monday for more, better, and more technical information about pipeline safety.

San Carlos City Manager Jeff Maltbie said the city still had not received satisfactory explanations about recently released internal PG&E e-mails that expressed concerns last year about Line 147, a 3.8-mile natural gas pipeline in the city.

“That is the gap we are dealing with today,” Maltbie told state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who chaired the hearing held in San Carlos City Council chambers.

“These questions have not been answered, at least not to our satisfaction,” Maltbie said.

The e-mails were written in November 2012 and disclosed to the city earlier this month by PG&E in the course of California Public Utilities Commission proceedings on PG&E pipeline record-keeping.

In one of them, a PG&E engineer said the actual specifications for the pipe were “inconsistent” with data in the utility’s records.

In another, a consulting engineer said he was concerned that the pipe had thin walls and showed external corrosion, questioned whether a 2011 high-pressure water test might have stressed the pipe, and asked, “Are we sitting on another San Bruno situation?”

The reference was to a pipeline rupture, explosion and fire in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 houses in 2010.

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane told Hill that PG&E’s “flawed or non-existent records” were a cause of that explosion and charged, “Now we find that flawed or non-existent records threatened the lives of San Carlos residents 14 miles down the road.”

Ruane called for both PG&E and the PUC to be more “honest, timely and transparent” in communications to local governments.

Burlingame City Councilwoman Terry Nagel testified, “We need to know more about the safety of pipelines in our city.

“When we do get information, it seems to be sanitized,” she said.

The hearing was held by the California Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee’s Subcommittee on Gas and Electric Infrastructure Safety. The purpose was to develop a plan for better communications among the PUC, utilities and cities.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, joined Hill in hearing the testimony.

In the final testimony at the close of the hearing, PUC Deputy Executive Director Brian Turner and two PG&E representatives vowed to improve communications.

Turner said the PUC’s regulatory authority over utilities includes overseeing their public outreach.

While much of the commission’s work is quasi-judicial proceedings, he said, “We have a lot of opportunity to use our role” to improve communications through less formal processes, such as the PUC’s Business and Community Outreach Program.

Turner said better communications would be included in an integrated safety plan that the commission will develop in the next year.

But he said he could not comment on pleas by Ruane, Nagel and others for an independent PUC monitor or ombudsman on pipeline safety because that issue is now before the commission in one of its San Bruno-related proceedings.

Hill said his committee will follow up with the PUC as soon as next week to confer on the development of the communications plan.

Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s senior manager of gas operations integrity management, and Papia Gambelin, a corporate affairs executive, said difficulties in San Bruno and San Carlos communications were “learning opportunities” in the utility’s quest to improve public information.

“We recognize we have a long way to go to regain trust. We are committed to regaining trust,” Singh said.

Singh said that one “learning moment” for him was that PG&E didn’t provide more context for the 2012 internal e-mails when they were released this month, and that he didn’t leave a “traceable e-mail response” to the messages, which had been sent to him.

Singh said he “picked up the phone” and talked directly to the engineer who raised concerns last year. PG&E has said it seriously discussed and investigated the concerns, has taken some additional safety measures, and has concluded that the pipeline is safe.

In a recent development, PG&E wrote to San Carlos residents on Oct. 25 to say its workers will be excavating and inspecting a short section of the pipe during the week of Nov. 4.

The excavation will be approximately 8 feet by 7 feet and the section will be repaired or replaced if it does not meet safety standards, the utility said.

“We want to assure you that Line 147 has been maintained and operated safely,” the letter said.

The disclosure of the e-mails on Oct. 3 led San Carlos to declare a state of emergency on Oct. 4, to win an order from a San Mateo County Superior Court judge that day requiring PG&E to isolate the line from the rest of its transmission system and to obtain another order from the PUC on Oct. 7 continuing the shutoff.

The PUC also began an investigation into the safety of the line and is due to hold its next hearing on that issue in San Francisco on Nov. 15.

On Oct. 21, a PUC administrative law judge granted PG&E’s request to reconnect the line, but at lower pressure than normal. The action came after PG&E said it needed the line to provide heating fuel during the cold season, and the PUC’s safety staff advised the judge that doing so would be safe.

PG&E has said that it learned of discrepancies in its records on Line 147 in October 2012, at the same time that it found and repaired a leak in the pipe.

Maltbie testified Monday that San Carlos officials learned of those events last year not from PG&E but from newspapers.

The city then began working with PG&E with “misplaced trust,” Malbtie said, but city leaders’ trust was broken when they learned of the then-11-month-old e-mails on Oct. 3, he said.

“We’ve never said the pipeline isn’t safe,” Maltbie told Hill.

“We’ve said a PG&E engineer has expressed concerns. We want to make sure they are addressed,” the city manager said.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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