One year ago a tragedy that could and should have never happened blasted its way onto front page news in the Northern California Bay Area. Sept. 9th, 2010: a PG&E pipeline exploded underneath a San Bruno killing eight people and turning 38 homes to which they provided gas into toothpicks and shrapnel.
Get out your checkbook.
Now the Utility Company wants the VICTIMS AND CUSTOMERS TO PAY for repairs for which it is solely responsible. After what we've since learned, are not all customers of PG&E, essentially a monopoly, now its potential victims? Seriously.
That PG&E is completely at fault has been verified by tons of evidence. There were people in the PG&E organization well aware that they had a seam weld risk - for some reason it wasn't getting addressed. As one example, a company engineer recounted a visit to a site earlier where an inspection crew was checking for corrosion on a pipeline in the immediate vicinity known as Line 132. He reported learning that before he got there, crews had identified as many as 20 suspected cracks on an angled bend in a short piece of pipe.
Royce Don Deaver, an out-of-state pipeline consultant who worked for decades in the pipeline industry, agreed that the discovery of a gap in the seam weld as well as a crack on the pipe that was about 1 1/4 inches long. should have triggered inspections across all of Line 132.
"Had they addressed this," Deaver said, "and if they had investigated this thoroughly, they might have found problems with other parts of the line, even where the line failed."
He wrote that he had found a gap in the seam weld as well as a crack on the pipe that was about 1 1/4 inches long.
The maintanance crew had dug up the line when it lost electronic signals, an indication that corrosion might be present in the pipe. When workers kept digging they found the flaws, the engineer wrote. but, after reporting the problem, NOTHING WAS DONE ABOUT IT.
State and Federal investigations investigating the tragic explosion have also uncovered bad welds, inconsistent testing for safety and documentation so disorganized as to suggest suspected concealment. This scrutiny has shown us records so inconsistent and shoddy that it becomes obvious the Utility didn't at all know what condition most of its pipes were in, probably doesn't right now.
At first. it might seem a relief that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is, at last, planning a long overdue, extensive upgrade to its natural gas system. That it is proposed in the wake of the San Bruno tragedy, unfortunately, indicates the plan is an afterthought. Makes it seem as if they HAVE to do it, but otherwise wouldn't. (One can imagine a board meeting, "Only eight people? We have thousands and thousands of other customers piping money to us, so what if we lose a smattering?")
Cementing the cold perspective of their lack of compassion and sincerity, comes news of PG&E's stunningly callous intention to make their customers pony up almost 90 percent of the $2.2 billion cost necessary to replace miles and mles of more defective pipeline, that could actually blow up more neighborhoods before even one valves is upgraded.
As you would expect, the idea of forcing PG&E customers pay the far greater portion of the project's costs enrages both the Utility's customers and critics.
Our Assemblyman Jerry Hill (Dem, 19th dist.), who represents San Bruno, was waiting for this. "We knew this day was coming, when PG&E would expect the ratepayers to pick up the cost of the repairs," he says. "This $2 billion capital expenditure will increase their profits down the road. That should be looked at carefully. They should not be allowed to profit from this."
How does Pacific Gas and Electric feel about passing this enormous bill on to their customers? They simply avoid that key issue and redirect attention to their delinquently configured patch-up. PG&E Happy Face and Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos, who was only recently hired this spring, AFTER the deadly Big San Bruno Bang, prefers to speak of what's going on his resume: the blueprint to overhaul the company's gas operations,"What we're proposing here is a massive, order-of-magnitude change to the way we've done business in the past," he said.
This would only matter to the relatives of those lost in the San Bruno catastrophe in that it is as near a direct admission of the Utility's guilt as could be found. You don't make massive changes unless there's been massive wrong doing.
But - where IS the change? One may ask: What's so different about the way you're doing business now? Have you designed a new manner in which to continue to ignore your customers?
Is the differing element in the "order-of-magnitude" that part where the customer pays for the slovenly maintenance of his Utility? Why should those threatened with harm because of deferred maintenance and cost-cutting pay to replace 186 miles of gas transmission lines, then go on to foot the bill in order to retrofit nearly 200 miles more, putting in place machines that can inspect the pipes properly from inside? Is this a business transaction or "protection money?"
PG&E says they will replace 228 shut-off valves, when actually it is you who will pay their workers, put their kids through college. You'll front the whole operation with your cash.
As newer models of faucets, valves and pipes, that can stop the flow of gas automatically or by remote control are installed, you are intended to pay the cost. While the company centralizes and digitizes all its pipeline records, as they should have done years ago, you will finance the undertaking. And the cost is not only beyond enormous, it is behind schedule by decades.
The big deal, yipee-skippy, intricate PG&E Pipeline Replacement Plan was only very recently filed with the California Public Utilities Commission. It went public the last Friday in August, nearly a whole year after San Bruno exploded, blowing away eight human lives and decimating 38 residences.
Investigations into the blast, both State and Federal, have revealed a portrait of a lazy, company that takes it's paying customers for granted and ceased any effort towards excellence, cutting it's maintenance budget to the point of not only being ineffective but not being there at all. Bad welds, inconsistent safety testing and record-keeping so inept illustrate a disorganized Utility that didn't know the condition of many of its pipes. Still doesn't.
As August comes to its close, we look forward to a final report card. The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to report its conclusion on the cause of the explosion. Will this report justify PG&E heaping onto its customers' backs this heavily priced and massive clean-up? The pricetag: $768.7 million through 2014, ADDING $1.93 to a typical homeowner's monthly bill.
And that, unfortunately, isn't all Pacific Gas And Electric plans for those paying for its energy services. Additionally, all new equipment installed would become part of the company's "rate base." soon, you'll get a letter explaining the new look of PG&E's monthly statement.
The shareholders portion will be significantly less. Their total would be $220.7 million through the next three years, with money coming out of PG&E's profit. Shareholders would spend an additional $314.5 million on pipeline safety programs already under way. (And what the hell does PG&E know about public safety? That it practices. I mean.
"Over the long term, it certainly will have an impact on customers' bills, no doubt," says Piggy Head, Stavropoulos. "But this is something that needs to be done..."
"They (PG&E) have no integrity at all," Deaver said. "You can't trust these people with public safety issues."
"When we're done ... we're going to know everything we'll need to know about these facilities from the standpoint of safety," Stavropoulos said Friday.
Too damn bad we can't choose from a menu of utility companies one that knows how to keep us safe from inadequate maintenance, deadly accidents and deliberate gouging.