PG&E’s Poor Record Keeping Poses Risk, Agency Says

Sorry folks, we forgot to keep track of the dangerous gas lines running under your homes

Pacific Gas and Electric company’s record keeping is so poor that it contributed to the deadly natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno and likely continues to pose a danger to communities and workers, a California Public Utilities Commission investigation concludes.

After studying PG&E’s record-keeping system and files for more than a year, commission investigators reported Monday that they found the utility’s “record keeping was in a mess and had been for years.”

“Gas transmission records and safety-related documents were scattered, disorganized, duplicated and were difficult if not impossible to access in a prompt and efficient manner,” the report said. PG&E could have addressed the problems if it “had put the right people, process and systems in place over time,” it stated.

But, in fact, PG&E’s record keeping had become so lax that in the mid-1990s its pipeline history files were destroyed, apparently by accident.

The 228-page report was written as part of an analysis the utilities commission is conducting before it holds hearings in September to determine what penalties should be levied against PG&E in connection with the September 2010 blast that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. In a separate development Monday, the utility agreed to pay the city of San Bruno $70 million as a settlement for suffering caused by the conflagration.

The report found that PG&E’s recording-keeping flaws prevented it from understanding the defective nature of the portion of pipeline that ruptured in 2010. The utility also was routinely not following its own recording-keeping standards, the investigators concluded.

“We’re not talking about a couple of lost pieces of paper, we’re talking about a pattern of substandard practices that went on for decades,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network watchdog group. “And this report suggests it directly led to the San Bruno explosion.

“The full cost in human lives and dollars has yet to be seen,” she said. “This is a massive, massive failure on PG&E’s part.”

PG&E Response

In a written response to the report, PG&E said it is working to improve its record keeping.

“PG&E has acknowledged the need to improve how we collect, store, access and share information about our natural gas system,” Nick Stavropoulos, executive vice president of gas operations, wrote in a statement.

Company managers have “already started learning from the investigation into our past record keeping and have taken huge steps forward,” he wrote. “We’re ensuring that we have complete, accurate data organized with the industry’s best data management tools.”

The report indicates that the improvements can’t come fast enough.

Researcher Margaret Felts wrote that “PG&E’s entire integrity management program is an exercise in futility.”

Other consultants concluded that “PG&E failed to maintain the records management practices necessary to promote the safety of its patrons, employees and the public.”

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said that if the utility hadn’t taken “shortcuts” in its record keeping and inspection programs, “they probably would have replaced that San Bruno pipeline before it exploded.” San Bruno is in Hill’s district.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said Hill, who has helped lead criticism of the utility since the explosion. “The weekly revelations of the incompetence, negligence and, I think, criminal behavior doesn’t surprise me.

“I do think PG&E will get better. They have to. They couldn’t get any worse.”

While acknowledging that PG&E is working to improve its records system, the report’s investigators take issue with its plans.

“PG&E has requested that $222.8 million of its Pipeline Records Integration Program (PRIP) costs be funded by ratepayers from 2012 to 2014,” they wrote. “As consultants, we suggest that these costs are excessive, and we cannot support PG&E’s request for them regardless of their total.”

‘Substandard’ Practices

The need for improvement, however, is outlined so graphically that one chart based on industry standards indicates that PG&E’s records practices barely rise above “substandard” at best.

A set of eight internationally recognized record-keeping standards listed in the report shows that on a scale from 1 to 5, PG&E never scores as high as 2 in any of several categories including accountability, compliance and integrity. The number 1 indicates “substandard,” 2 is “in development,” and so on until reaching 5, which means “transformational.”