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PG&E on Hot Seat for Explosion

PG&E President Chris Johns, in San Bruno
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PG&E President Chris Johns, in San Bruno
Feds investigate as reports mount that gas leaks preceded disaster

The heat is on Pacific Gas & Electric Company as the fire that ravaged a San Bruno neighborhood Thursday night continues to smolder and residents' anger began to build.

A growing chorus of residents now charges that PG&E was not only aware of gas leaks in the weeks leading up to the devastating explosion, but was actually on site this week with heavy machinery. Questions are still being raised about the length of time it took for PG&E to turn off the flow after a major gas transmission line ruptured, fueling the inferno that destroyed 37 homes and killed four.

Sen. Barbara Boxer and other leaders are calling for a thorough investigation, invoking a deadly 2008 explosion in Rancho Cordova that was caused by a faulty PG&E pipe repair.

PG&E officials said Friday they had not determined what caused the company's gas line to rupture. Attending a press briefing on Friday morning, PG&E President Christopher P. Johns said the company would "do the right thing" if it was found to be responsible.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, have launched formal probes. The utility could face fines.

"If this is caused by operator error, there will be substantial penalties," said Brigham McCown, a lawyer who worked in the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the Bush Administration.

PG&E's reputation already took a big hit with Californians this year after spending $46 million on a failed ballot measure to cement its monopoly on power distribution. On Friday, following the explosion, the company's stock took a hit, dropping more than 8 percent.

PG&E owns and operates gas lines throughout Northern and Central California, including the one in question: a high-capacity 30-inch-diameter steel pipe that carries gas from Milpitas to somewhere near San Francisco, according to CPUC officials, and travels under San Bruno's Crestmont neighborhood. PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt called it "a backbone in our gas system."

San Mateo Assemblyman Jerry Hill said he was "outraged" to learn that some residents had complained to PG&E about gas leaks in the neighborhood "for up to three weeks" before the explosion. "I will be working closely with the Public Utilities Commission to ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted into the cause of this fire," Hill said in a statement.

State senators Alex Padilla and Mark Leno also announced Friday that hearings would be held into the causes of the disaster.

A San Bruno fire chief said at the press conference that firefighters had difficulty putting out the blaze, which saw flames shoot 80 feet into the air, until the gas was shut off. The explosion happened shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday and left a 15-foot-deep crater in the pavement. A massive fireball raged for more than an hour, radiating heat that could be felt through closed car doors blocks away

PG&E spokesman Jeff White said Friday morning that the utility was not able to turn off the gas until the "latter part" of the evening, but did not elaborate. White emphasized that it has not been proven that the ruptured pipeline was the cause of the disaster. PG&E was still looking into allegations that it knew about the leaks beforehand.

Residents say PG&E told of leaks

For months, Kathy Crouse and her son, Jason, suspected that there was a growing problem with the natural gas pipes that lay beneath their quiet block of Sequoia Avenue in San Bruno —just a few blocks from the site of the explosion on Thursday. A few months ago, a neighbor across the street complained of a minor gas leak. The Crouses said it took PG&E three weeks to fix—so long that the chalk drawn on the asphalt by repair crews had been washed away by the rain and had to be redrawn.

Then this week, a pervasive smell of natural gas began to waft around Sneath Lane, the Crouses and other residents of Sequoia said. On Wednesday, Jason said he saw PG&E trucks—including one with a "mini-excavator" in tow—pull onto Glenview Street, where Kathy's best friend, Gayle Musunu lived.

The back of Musunu's home at 1700 Claremont faces the site of the Thursday explosion, and Musunu, 61, said that she saw "construction crews" working on Glenview on Wednesday but could not confirm whether they were dispatched by the utility. According to Musunu's son, Shane, neighbors had said that representatives from the utilities told them to shut their garage doors if they were bothered by the smell of natural gas, but Shane's mother said she did not smell any gas.

In the wake of the Thursday explosion, residents have offered fragmented and at times differing accounts of the scene leading up to the horrific inferno that consumed a small subdivision here in San Bruno. But a consensus among residents has begun to emerge that suggests PG&E had been aware of problems with its aging pipe network in the area.

PG&E was chastised for past explosions

On Christmas Eve 2008, an explosion destroyed a Rancho Cordova home, killing Wilbert Paana, 72, and sent his granddaughter and daughter to the hospital. The cause: a poor repair job and a slow response from PG&E.

According to an investigation by the NTSB, PG&E repairmen two years earlier had used an "out-of-specification polyethylene pipe with inadequate wall thickness that allowed gas to leak from the mechanical coupling." The investigation also found that the disaster was made worse by the fact that it took nearly three hours for a trained PG&E team to respond to the explosion.

(Click here for the full report. )

"At that time, the NTSB had investigated and said that PG&E's response time was inadequate and PG&E said we're going to fix everything," said Mindy Spatt, communications director for The Utility Reform Network, a statewide utility watchdog.

"Here we are, less than two years later, with an unbelievable tragedy," Spatt continued. "Did they learn anything from what happened before? Did they change anything? Is the PUC asleep at the wheel? After seeing that PG&E's response time was inadequate, did they PUC hold PG&E's feet to the fire at all?"

A PG&E spokesperson was quoted in the Sacramento Bee in May saying that PG&E had improved its warning system and upgraded gas leak testing equipment given to repairman.

At an appearance in Southern California Friday, Sen. Boxer cited the incident in calling for an investigation, the LA Times reported.

Who's at fault?

By law, PG&E is responsible for testing and maintaining its gas lines.

"It's a highly regulated industry that requires a lot of testing monthly and annually," said Doug Burkhart, president of Smith & Dennison Construction in Livermore, which builds gas lines and developed technology to detect gas leaks. "You don't just turn this thing on and walk away."

Assembly member Hill said that the pipe was installed in 1948, although PG&E would not confirm that fact. The utility must regularly check for leaks and test the thickness of the pipe's walls that can be worn away by corrosion, experts said.

"I'm not suggesting that this happened in this case, but PG&E have had mud on their face for not really testing the pipes like they're supposed to," said Burkhart.

PG&E spokeswoman Liebelt said that the lines are regularly maintained, but she could not say how often.

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