National Transportation Safety Board Identifies the Real Threat to Pipelines: PG&E

A year ago, I suggested that PG&E’s willful incompetence was probably a bigger threat to critical infrastructure and key resources like pipelines than the anti-fracking activists PA investigated as potential terrorist threats.

Just to take one example, who do you think is a greater risk to our oil and gas infrastructure? A bunch of hippie protesters trying to limit drilling in the Marcellus Shale and thereby protect the quality of their drinking water (which is, itself, considered critical infrastructure)? Or PG&E, which sat on knowledge of an extremely high risk pipeline for three years even after setting aside the money to fix it?

Three years ago, PG&E asked state regulators for permission to spend $4.87 million to replace a section of the pipeline associated with the pipe that exploded in San Bruno last Thursday. The 1.42-mile section that ran under South San Francisco, which is more heavily populated than San Bruno, was considered extremely high risk and in need to replacement. Last year, the utility company made a similar request to replace a larger section of the same pipeline, at a cost of $13 million. Rate increases were approved and the plan should have gone forward. Sadly, nothing was done and lives were lost.

The South San Francisco pipeline replacement project was dropped down on the priority list and the money allocated for the work was spent elsewhere. Many experts and laypersons alike are now asking, why didn’t PG&E replace pipes they knew to be extremely dangerous?

It appears the National Transportation Safety Board–which just issued a scathing report on PG&E San Bruno explosion–agrees with me. It’s findings include the following:

  • Had a properly prepared contingency plan for the Milpitas Terminal electrical work been in place and been executed, the loss of pressure control could have been anticipated and planned for, thereby minimizing or avoiding the pressure deviations.
  • PG&E lacked detailed and comprehensive procedures for responding to a large-scale emergency such as a transmission line break, including a defined command structure that clearly assigns a single point of leadership and allocates specific duties to supervisory control and data acquisition staff and other involved employees.
  • PG&E’s supervisory control and data acquisition system limitations contributed to the delay in recognizing that there had been a transmission line break and quickly pinpointing its location.
  • The 95 minutes that PG&E took to stop the flow of gas by isolating the rupture site was excessive.


  • The PG&E gas transmission integrity management program was deficient and ineffective.
  • PG&E’s public awareness program self-evaluation was ineffective at identifying and correcting deficiencies.
  • The deficiencies identified during this investigation are indicative of an organizational accident.
  • The multiple and recurring deficiencies in PG&E operational practices indicate a systemic problem.

If the folks running our pipelines suffer from such systemic problems they can’t avoid blowing up nice suburban areas, isn’t that worthy of at least as much focused attention as all the money dumped into boondoggle War on Terror programs?

13 replies
  1. DWBartoo says:

    Very OT, and I apologize, but I hope that we might hear from bmaz regarding what has just come down In the DC court of Judge John Facciola, in the case of Lt. Dan Choi.

    The DoJ has filed a writ of Mandamus …


  2. MadDog says:

    @DWBartoo: From Metro Weekly:

    Choi Trial Put on Hold After Judge Allows “Vindictive Prosecution” Defense

    The third day of the U.S. government’s trial of former Lt. Dan Choi ended with a 10-day delay for the government to seek an order from a higher court stopping the decision made today by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola to allow Choi’s lawyers to argue the government singled out Choi for “vindictive prosecution.”

    Facciola said this morning that he had found there was prima facie evidence for “vindictive prosecution,” meaning enough evidence was presented to allow Choi’s lawyers to pursue such a claim. As a result, Choi’s lawyers would be able to ask for more documents and evidence from the government in order to investigate if higher-level officials advised their subordinates to try Choi in federal court rather than D.C. court and, if so, why.

    The government, represented in court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela George, told the court that it would be filing a writ of mandamus (or a writ of prohibition) against the judge — seeking to stop the pursuit of the “vindictive prosecution” defense.

    [CLARIFICATION: The U.S. Attorney’s Office clarified that if the government follows through with the filing of the writ of mandamus, it will go before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, who will rule on it. Metro Weekly initially reported that such a writ would go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.]”

  3. rugger9 says:

    Back to Pacific Graft and Extortion…

    One of the early stories about this was that the rate increase imposed by PG&E in 2008 was pitched to the PUC as needed to repair.replace, and investigate piping, but was diverted to executive bonuses instead. At every step in the process of investigation PG&E has lurched from incompetence to stonewalling (even now they can’t find the records they were supposed to have, and review of other pipe sections shows the ones they do have are, shall we say, optimistic in what the sections could handle) to mind-numbing hubris in what will become a case study for piss-poor PR and accountability. They’ve blamed the victims in court filings, they’ve demanded that the ratepayers cover 90% of the costs, rather than coughing up their ill-gotten bonuses and stockholder dividends [which is where most of the money went, anyway].

    After all, they did have the 60 million dollars or so available to try to shut down municipal utilities that do a better job for less than they do, via statewide initiative.

    [Bleep] PG&E management, they must hang [and go to trial for the gross negligence tied to the deaths in San Bruno and other places before and since].

  4. P J Evans says:

    They seem to have gotten some of their pipe from a scrapyard, since they didn’t have any idea what grade it was (or where it was made), and hadn’t bothered to check the welding quality before they buried it.

    I’ve seen enough paperwork on gas piping, over the last couple of decades, to know that that’s really crappy construction management.

    (I’d be willing to pay for a CD/DVD with all the stuff listed on the docket. It’s more than 14,000 pages.)

  5. bmaz says:


    By the way, I will add that I see about no way Royce Lamberth would want any part of an interlocutory whiny appeal on a freaking misdemeanor bench (i.e. non-jury) trial. If he does anything but bounce it right back to Facciola I will eat several hats. Lamberth was also a long time JAG, I think he would sympathize with Choi a little.

  6. rugger9 says:

    @P J Evans:
    That’s part of the problem, and it’s a picture we have if the GOP is ever left in power again, they assume saying something is the same as doing something.

    The PG&E management needs to go down in flames, after the bonuses are extracted.

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