As investigators poured into San Bruno in the immediate aftermath of the September 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people, PG&E gave them a piece of astonishingly inaccurate information.
Although the pipe's failure would eventually be traced to faulty welds, including one along a lengthwise seam on the pipe, PG&E's database showed the pipe to be seamless.
But the bad data was only the "tip of the iceberg" in a woefully inadequate record keeping system, a safety consultant later concluded. The company knew so little about the thousands of miles of large-diameter, high-pressure gas lines in Northern California that it could not possibly maintain them safely, said the consultant.
Since PG&E's sloppy record-keeping came to light, hundreds of technicians and engineers have spent thousands of hours poring through millions of individual documents in an unprecedented effort to build a detailed view of PG&E's vast gas transmission system -- and to repair the utility's tattered reputation.
So far, the effort has involved collecting 3 million records scattered in file cabinets in about 60 PG&E offices between Eureka and Bakersfield, and shipping them to Emeryville. Once there, technicians scanned them into a computer system. Dozens more technicians based in Walnut Creek offices have been meticulously indexing those documents so engineers can click on any length of pipeline and see all the available records -- purchase orders, engineering drawings, manufacturers' documents, and other kinds of reports.
The level of detail that will be available to the company's engineers, and the speed with which the database is being compiled, appear to be unprecedented, said Sumeet Singh, who is heading the quarter-billion dollar project.
"We're going through every single record for every single foot of pipe," Singh said.
But PG&E's sloppy handling of its records over many decades makes the project difficult and expensive, and could ultimately limit its effectiveness, say critics.
"It's good they're trying to make things better, but they've got a lot of work," said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline consultant in Redmond, Wash., who consults for The Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco consumer advocate organization.
One of the major problems for the company is the sheer number of records that are just missing, Kuprewicz said. That will require engineers to make assumptions, and that is where the company can get into trouble, he said.
State regulators last year launched an investigation into whether PG&E's record-keeping practices have been unsafe and illegal. In opening the investigation, the California Public Utilities Commission said it was "prepared to impose very significant fines" if it determines faulty record-keeping contributed to the San Bruno explosion, which in addition to the deaths, injured many more people, destroyed 38 houses, and damaged several more. Hearings are scheduled this fall.
Of the nearly 2,100 miles of pipelines buried beneath urban areas that were examined with the new database so far, engineers were able to use records to verify that the pipeline was operating at safe pressures about 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent were analyzed using conservative assumptions in place of missing records, Singh said.
By lowering pipeline pressures and examining equipment in the field, PG&E has verified that the allowable pressures in its pipes are safe in those urban areas, according to the company.
The company has months of work ahead as it continues to compile information and analyze pressures in the other 4,600 miles of transmission pipelines.
For Nick Stavropoulos, who was hired by PG&E last year to turn around a gas business whose neglect was tragically exposed by the deadly San Bruno explosion, the development of a solid records-based description of the company's pipeline network is one of his top priorities. So is instilling more attention to safety issues, deploying better information technology and rebuilding the pipeline safety management program.
"I have had this relentless focus on the records," said Stavropoulos, PG&E's executive vice president for gas operations. "I'm determined that we're going to be the best in class."
By the time the project is done next year, the utility will have spent an estimated $272 million and have a state-of-the-art record-keeping system that will lead the way among gas companies, according to PG&E.
The company and its shareholders will cover more than half the costs because much of the problem was due to past mistakes. But PG&E is asking customers to pay for $107 million, or nearly 40 percent, arguing that despite its past shortcomings some of the work is necessary to meet new regulations that it was not obligated to meet before.
Consumer advocates are certain to disagree. Margaret Felts, the consultant who identified PG&E's bad records on the seam in the pipeline at San Bruno "the tip of an iceberg," detailed how the company ignored regulations and its own policies in routinely discarding records that could be used to inform engineers to make better decisions about safety and maintenance issues.
She concluded that the San Bruno explosion could have been prevented if the company had better managed its records.
And, she added, PG&E's entire pipeline maintenance program was an "exercise in futility" because of the missing information.
"If that were true, we should all go home," Stavropoulos said. "I would stack up our records now to anybody's."
To read the order by the California Public Utilities Commission launching investigation into PG&E record-keeping, go to: http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/word_pdf/FINAL_DECISION/131209.pdf
To read the testimony of consultant Margaret Felts, who found errors with records of San Bruno pipeline to be the "tip of the iceberg,"
go to: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/NR/rdonlyres/C6F76F1E-DAA1-49A0-9FEC-8207A3EAF0CF /0/I1102016REVISEDFINALCPSDReportandTestimonyofFelts.pdf
To read the report from CPUC's safety division on PG&E's record-keeping, go to:
Copyright 2012 Contra Costa Newspapers. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published May 9, 2012, in the Contra Costa Times.)