This blog is designed to highlight the diversity of views and news stories on urban energy topics that appear daily in the media. They are intended to provoke discussions on how cultural, geographic, political, and institutional influences shape the way energy markets operate and energy policies are made in cities around the world.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
San Bruno to get up to $100 million from PG&E
Demian Bulwa,Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Lacy Atkins / The Chronicle
California Highway Patrol inspector Mark Andrews does an inventory of cars that were destroyed in the explosion and fire.
(09-13) 19:50 PDT SAN BRUNO -- Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Monday that it will spend as much as $100 million to help rebuild the San Bruno neighborhood that was devastated when one of the utility's natural gas transmission lines ruptured and spewed a deadly fireball.
PG&E President Chris Johns said the firm's board of directors approved the relief fund Sunday night, freeing up "no strings attached" money that is independent of the cost of replacing homes that were ravaged by fire. The money also is separate from legal claims many residents of the Crestmoor neighborhood are expected to file.
Johns said the spending is not an admission that the company is at fault for the blast Thursday evening that killed at least four people, destroyed 37 homes and badly damaged eight others. Four people remain unaccounted for.
Johns said the utility had already cut the city a check for $3 million for costs associated with responding to the disaster. PG&E will give as much as $50,000 apiece for day-to-day needs to people whose homes were damaged or destroyed.
In addition, Johns said, PG&E will "make whole" those who lack comprehensive insurance coverage for items they lost, and the company will help rebuild streets, sidewalks and parks.
The utility maintains liability insurance of $992 million for damage caused by fire, with a $10 million deductible.
"I realize money can't return lives. It can't heal scars, it can't replace memories," Johns said at a news conference. "But there does come a time for healing and for rebuilding, and we are committed to helping that happen."
Johns and other PG&E officials also defended the maintenance and inspection of the high-pressure, 30-inch-diameter transmission pipeline that ruptured at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive. Johns said he could not speculate on the possible causes of the explosion, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"We did not anticipate any issues with (the pipeline) at that point," Johns said of the blast site.
Investigators with the safety board are leading the main probe into what caused the blast. Although they said they are far from reaching conclusions, some intriguing discoveries emerged Monday.
How pipe tore loose
Christopher Hart, the agency's vice chairman, said the 28-foot section of pipe that shot out of the ground in the explosion had a "clean break" at or near a weld joint at one end, and a "jagged" tear at the other end that was not near a weld. Federal investigators said earlier that they were trying to determine why the section appeared to have been cut at some earlier point and rewelded in segments.
The 28-foot piece, and two additional 10-foot-chunks chopped from both ends of the explosion site by investigators, were loaded onto trucks Monday evening to begin their journey to testing laboratories in Washington, D.C.
Gary Beltz, a retired, longtime corrosion technician who worked on natural gas pipelines, said that at the time the San Bruno line was made, inspections of weld joints were not as efficient as they are now, leaving open the possibility of weakness at construction. The San Bruno pipeline was installed in 1956, according to the federal safety board.
"Back then the welds weren't required to be X-rayed as they are now," said Beltz, who worked for Texas Eastern Gas Transmission. He said such transmission lines can function perfectly for many decades if properly maintained.
The key to the maintenance is preserving a coating on the outside of the steel pipe to protect it from corrosion, Beltz said.
Theories about troubles with the coating - and of other potential causes - abounded Monday. But as a growing number of state, local and federal officials bore down on their probes, nobody was committing to one vein of inquiry.
Water and sewer lines run directly below, and perpendicular to, the pipeline. A potentially ground-eroding creek runs nearby, and the line lies on top of the San Andreas Fault. All those are factors that will be looked at, investigators said.
D'Arcy and Harty Construction of San Francisco did sewer replacement work in 2008 on a 1,600-foot stretch along Earl Avenue near the site of the explosion. A company spokesman said Monday that the job passed inspection by PG&E at the time, and San Bruno's mayor has said he doesn't believe the work contributed to the blast. But the history of that project is being examined.
Officials also are trying to determine how vigorously the line was inspected over the years. Such transmission lines must be inspected annually, said Julie Halligan, deputy director of the California Public Utilities Commission's consumer protection and safety division.
Geisha Williams, PG&E's senior vice president of energy delivery, said the pipeline was buried 4 to 5 feet underground. It was inspected and deemed free of leaks in March, she said, after workers walked along the line with a handheld device that can detect the presence of gas. In inaccessible locations, she said, the survey was done from a helicopter.
Some residents have said they smelled gas in days leading up to the explosion. But Johns said the utility has looked through 95 percent of its call records dating to July 1 and had found no indication of calls regarding odor at the blast location.
He said there were two calls in mid-July from people two to three blocks away - one for a smell and another for a leak at a meter. No leak was found regarding the smell, and the meter leak was fixed, he said.
In November, PG&E officials said, the pipeline passed an external inspection designed to look for corrosion. Ed Salas, senior vice president of engineering and operations, said the company had run an electrical current through the line. A worker with probes that look like ski poles walked along the line, placing the probes in the ground to detect leakage of the current.
The utility officials said the pipeline did not have valves that could be shut remotely, cutting off the flow of gas to a particular area, even though some other PG&E lines feature such automatic valves.
After Thursday's explosion, workers had to close the valves on either side of the rupture manually. PG&E officials said they did not know how long that process had taken or whether workers had done it properly. The valves were within a "couple of miles" of the blast site, said Hart of the federal safety board.