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PG&E accused of falsifying safety records for five years

Public Utilities Commission alleges utility responded to 2010 gas explosion by faking pipeline safety

An aerial photo of fires burning in San Bruno
Fires still burning from the 2010 gas line explosion in 2010 that killed eight.
Mister Oh

Last Friday, the California Public Utilities Commission [CPUC] accused Pacific Gas & Electric Company [PG&E] of falsifying safety documentation for years around gas pipelines, even as the utility reckoned with the consequences of a deadly Bay Area gas explosion.

According to the order CPUC issued last week calling for an investigation into the allegations, SF-based PG&E faked thousands of safety records from 2012 through 2017, leaving gas pipelines throughout Northern California inadequately marked and creating a danger that construction could damage pipes and lead to disaster.

A CPUC press release claims:

California law requires utilities to timely locate and mark natural gas pipelines to ensure that third-party construction excavation does not damage pipes and other components and thus diminish safety.

A CPUC Safety and Enforcement Division (SED) staff investigation report alleges that PG&E falsified locate and mark records. [...] PG&E lacked sufficient staffing to locate and mark natural gas pipelines; pressured supervisors and locators to complete the work resulting in PG&E staff falsifying data so requests for pipeline locating and marking would not appear as late; had common knowledge among its supervisors that locators falsified data; and received input from external pa rties that there were discrepancies in its late locate and mark reporting.

As the investigation order notes, these incidents allegedly happened “immediately following the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion and fire that resulted in eight fatalities, numerous injuries and damage to property.”

Rather than respond to that incident by tightening safety standards, the state regulator accuses the utility of disregarding them.

Transportation Sec. LaHood Tours Site Of PG&E Gas Explosion
The crater left by the 2010 explosion.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

CPUC investigators say that “supervisors and locators felt pressure to falsify tickets so they would not appear” late after PG&E management pressured them, and that the company fostered an environment in which appearing to complete inspections was more important than actually getting them done.

In response to the investigation, PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman said in a statement to Curbed SF, “We acknowledge and recognize the serious concerns raised by the California Public Utilities Commission regarding our failure to meet certain Locate and Mark reporting requirements. We did not live up to our commitment to accurate reporting and record-keeping in this case.”

Nauman says the utility has brought in a consultant to audit its process and added more inspectors, as well as “making a number of personnel and organizational changes.”

The 2010 San Bruno disaster resulted in a ruling against PG&E and the harshest sentence against the utility permitted under the law, including a period of criminal probation that the company is still serving.

According to PG&E, the company’s gas system “spans 70,000 square miles and serves one out of every 20 Americans.”