PG&E Says Pipeline Testing Will Continue After Rupture

TURN says both CPUC and PG&E need to prioritize safety- fast!

A day after a critical natural gas pipeline failed a pressure test in an alfalfa field west of Bakersfield, PG&E faced a barrage of media questions about the rupture, the big crater it left behind, the location of pipelines in Kern County and their overall safety.

The utility opened the rupture site to the press on Tuesday. Reporters saw a giant hole in the ground, made larger by excavation that has taken place since Monday morning. PG&E also faced questions about why media outlets weren’t informed of the morning pipeline break until Monday evening.

There was no gas in the pipe at the time of the testing. In so-called hydrostatic pressure testing, gas flow is stopped and high-pressure water is fed through pipes to determine how much pressure they can handle.

The pipe here burst open before the maximum water pressure had been applied.

PG&E officials also revealed Tuesday that a so-called “pressure limiting station” outside of Bakersfield has been out of commission recently.

A regulating station reduces gas pressure in a pipeline system, PG&E said in response to written questions submitted by The Californian.

“We have a regulating station for Line 142N, which is one of the two primary gas transmission lines serving Bakersfield. Line 142S is the other. It was taken out of service to complete a station rebuilding project that began last year,” PG&E said in a statement.

Monday’s rupture was unrelated to that station being offline, said PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson.

The San Francisco utility giant has stepped up testing of its transmission lines since a pipeline exploded last year in San Bruno, killing eight people.

“Safety is our top priority,” said PG&E spokeswoman Katie Harlan Allen. “The whole reason for doing the tests is to find those weaknesses, and when we find them, we fix them immediately.”

Allen said the company will reimburse the owner of the property on which the local pipeline was buried for damage caused to the alfalfa field. She declined to give the name of the property owner and said she didn’t know how much would be paid in reimbursement.

PG&E is evaluating 150 miles of pipeline this year, including conducting 10 pressure tests in Kern County.

Since April, the company has completed 60 pressure tests on 120 miles of pipeline in its service area, including half of the 10 pressure tests slated for Kern.

The test that ripped a hole in the alfalfa field was on one of two parallel PG&E transmission lines, 300A and 300B, that run from Topock to a terminal in Milpitas. It was Line 300B that ruptured.

The company has prioritized for testing pipes that either are very old or have a nonexistent or incomplete test record. Pipeline 300B was installed in 1950.

The two primary gas transmission lines that serve the Bakersfield area are 142N and 142S. Line 142N connects to both of the twin 300 lines. Line 142S connects to Line 300B only.

Both the local segment that failed and the one that exploded in the Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno disaster burst along a tear in a longitudinal seam.

Some now wonder if such seams are inherently dangerous.

“Typically, double submerged arc welded seams are very reliable,” Swanson said. “PG&E is currently investigating why the DSAW seam on this segment of Line 300B failed during the pressure test.”

PG&E crews immediately began working on the local pipe after it ruptured about 9 a.m. Monday, the company said. Asked why it took more than eight hours for PG&E to notify local media, Allen said the company released information as soon as it could.

PG&E sent out a vague news release shortly after 5 p.m.

Allen said the burst section should be replaced by the end of the week and another test will be run on it.

Dennis Shelton, who lives within a mile of where the pipe burst, said he has lots of concerns given what happened in San Bruno, where eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed.

He was shocked to hear the pipe that burst near Bakersfield was installed in 1950.

“That’s very surprising,” he said.

Advocacy group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, is a frequent critic of PG&E and Tuesday called the latest test results alarming.

“If there was a bad weld in San Bruno and there was a bad weld in Bakersfield, where else is there a bad weld?” asked spokeswoman Mindy Spatt.

Spatt called on the California Public Utilities Commission to do a better job of holding PG&E accountable, including making sure the company’s pressure tests all are at the right level as the state gears up for higher natural gas use in winter.

Some pipelines have been subjected to more intense testing than others, and regulators have not objected when results from weaker tests than requested were submitted for review, Spatt said.

“Not only has PG&E had a lax attitude about safety, but the PUC has had a lax attitude about PG&E,” Spatt said. “Both of those things need to change, and fast.”

Swanson said so-called spike testing, which includes a short burst of extreme water pressure followed by a sustained level of pressure that exceeds normal operational levels for natural gas, can potentially damage pipelines and are only done when it is determined such a test will not irreversibly harm the segment.

The commission declined to comment Tuesday, but in February it announced it was considering penalizing PG&E after finding the utility had incorrectly said the San Bruno pipe was seamless, and had failed to maintain comprehensive records of the testing and maintenance of its network.