PG&E Blames Deadly San Bruno Blast on Pipe Test the State Says Never Happened

Thursday, June 28, 2012
(photo: Brent Ward, San Francisco Chronicle)


Faced with the prospect of having to pay millions of dollars in compensation for the 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is blaming the blast on a pipeline test it says it performed in 1956.

The state Public Utilities Commission maintains that there is no record of the company doing such a test, one commonly conducted to look for weaknesses in pipes, and PG&E isn’t disputing the lack of a record. But the company said in a filing this past week that a former employee, unnamed in the document, has a recollection of the test being conducted 56 years ago when the pipe was first installed. PG&E said that experts it had hired concluded that the test, commonly done using high-pressure water, could have caused a partial tear in the pipe more than 50 years ago without leading to a full rupture at the time.

State regulators have accused the utility of shoddy record keeping, failure to do required tests, control room breakdowns, a crummy emergency response and a culture that “emphasized profits over safety.” Eight people died on September 9, 2010, when a weld holding together a torn section of pipe ruptured, destroying 38 homes and injuring 50 people. Subsequent investigation showed the weld to be only half the required thickness.   

The company had known for decades that the pipeline in question had problems, according to a memo it released to regulators earlier this year. An investigation by PG&E after a minor leak in 1988 indicated that there was a problem with a weld on the line, but that it was not serious enough to warrant further testing. Documents about the 1988 incident had appeared lost until the company, coming under increased scrutiny, conducted a more detailed search that turned up the paperwork.

PG&E agreed in March to pay the city of San Bruno $70 million to create a nonprofit organization to assist victims of the explosion. PG&E also set up a $100 million relief fund of its own, but still faces a class-action lawsuit filed by hundreds of the blast’s victims. The suit’s trial date was recently moved from June 23 to October 9. It consolidates 95 cases representing more than 300 plaintiffs.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:     

San Bruno Pipe Explosion Trial Delayed to Oct. 9 (by Joshua Melvin, San Mateo County Times)

PG&E Says 1956 Pipe Test Led to San Bruno Disaster (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

PG&E San Bruno Blast Source Revealed: Company Says 1956 Test Caused Deadly Explosion (by Aaron Sankin, Huffington Post)

Trial Date Set for San Bruno Explosion Lawsuits against PG&E (CBS)

Fatal Blast Puts Focus on Web of Gas Pipelines (by Matthew Cardinale, COTO Report)

San Francisco Sues U.S. Government over Deadly Pipeline Explosion (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

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