Five years after a devastating pipeline explosion ripped through the city of San Bruno, killing eight, and a year after another explosion destroyed a house in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. still doesn’t have accurate records of the gas pipes around our homes, neighborhoods and businesses, the business practices to compensate for their inaccurate records, or the tools in place to immediately halt a gas leak. Each day this situation is not fixed puts the public’s safety at risk.
That’s not my opinion alone, but the concern of the California Public Utilities Commission, which opened a formal investigation of PG&E’s practices and record-keeping after recent pipeline accidents in Carmel, Mountain View, Milpitas, Morgan Hill and Castro Valley highlighted the risk to public safety of PG&E not having accurate records or maps of its vast pipeline network.
The proceeding — which could lead to more penalties and fines against PG&E — follows a report by the CPUC’s Safety Enforcement Division finding that PG&E’s pipeline records are too inadequate and too flawed to be trusted when making critically important, ongoing safety decisions. The public remains at risk until these issues are resolved.
It’s the same problem that caused tragedy in 2010, when PG&E’s record-keeping errors led to a fatal fire and explosion in San Bruno. PG&E is now facing a $1.6 billion penalty and fine for its mistakes.
And it’s the reason that another explosion shook Carmel, when in 2014 bad records misled construction crews replacing a gas-distribution line at Guadalupe and Third Street. The pressurized “live” line was punctured, causing gas to escape into a nearby house. PG&E knew it had caused a leak but allowed this dangerous situation to persist for more than 30 minutes without calling 911. Our police and firefighters were therefore not alerted and were not able to evacuate the area. The house exploded, sending building debris just over the heads of crews and residents walking nearby. Shrapnel was hurled into neighboring houses and windows were blown in by shock waves. It was a miracle nobody was killed, but we cannot rely on miracles to protect the public safety. The incident should have been prevented.
Yet bad records seem to be only part of the problem with PG&E in the Carmel region, which has suffered a string of incidents and life-threatening service delays since the initial incident.
Immediately prior to the 2014 explosion, construction crews realized they had accidentally tapped into an inserted plastic main, a main that records did not indicate existed. Once the main started leaking, PG&E did not have the “squeezer” tools in place to immediately stop gas flow.
PG&E crews were forced to halt the leak manually and it took them more than 60 minutes to do so. It was too late — the house exploded within 30 minutes.
PG&E has since been fined $10.8 million for its role in the Carmel explosion, with more penalties to come, depending on the outcome of the CPUC investigation.
Despite PG&E’s lip service and empty promises of recovery, five subsequent pipeline accidents and leaks in the Carmel area have shaken our confidence in the company’s commitment to safety.
Last year, shortly after the house explosion, another gas leak was reported in a major hotel. PG&E took more than five hours to respond. Weeks later another gas leak threatened Carmel when a third-party construction crew hit a pipe outside another hotel. A 20-foot gas cloud lingered for 20 minutes before PG&E crews finally arrived and they took over an hour to stop the leak.
While PG&E was able to halt these leaks before tragedy struck in the crowded area, the incidents underscored our urgency to make sure PG&E implements several potentially lifesaving safety measures to prevent future pipeline breaches from threatening this community again.
These include better training of construction crews with the necessary emergency tools to make sure gas leaks are stopped quickly. Crews must respond to odor calls in a timely fashion, and a project manager must be designated to monitor construction projects and make regular site visits for possible pipeline interference.
As we prepare to participate in the upcoming CPUC investigation of PG&E’s record-keeping and safety practices, we intend to require these measures as part of any penalties levied. We simply can’t trust that PG&E will impose these measures on its own. The safety of our communities and the lives of our residents depend on our diligence.
Jason Burnett is mayor of Carmel.