Stavropoulos said he’d been authorized to spend more than $2 billion in shareholder funding on pipeline safety upgrades since joining PG&E. Geisha Williams, who directs the utility's electric division, said PG&E had recently stepped up its efforts to clear tree limbs and eliminate fire hazards near its 2.4 million utility poles.
These efforts haven’t completely prevented dangerous outcomes, however. A recent investigation linked the possible ignition source of the Butte Fire -- which left a disaster zone in its wake -- to a PG&E power line. An underground PG&E gas line leak, meanwhile, triggered an explosion that blew up a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea in 2014.
Immediately following that incident, “we had visits from PG&E representatives. They told us all our questions would be answered,” Victoria Beach, a city councilmember of Carmel-by-the-Sea, told commissioners at the hearing. “We were full of questions that we wanted answered.”
But when the results of an investigation were released, “nearly all of our questions were still unanswered,” she said. “We have never gotten answers.”
CPUC President Michael Picker offered to intervene.
“I will arrange a phone call between Mr. Stavropolous, myself and you, if that will help,” he promised Beach.
Eric Hofmann, a business representative for the Utility Workers Union of America Local 132, offered the perspective of someone who had worked on gas pipelines. “I’m a second-generation gas company employee, and I’m proud of it," he told commissioners by way of introduction. "I’ve had the great misfortune of almost being electrocuted. Or I guess you could say, the great fortune of only nearly being electrocuted.”
Hofmann said utility workers in his union, which represents Southern California Gas Company employees, had encountered safety hazards out in the field that required more attention.
A formal whistleblower program is in place to encourage employees to report safety matters, but Hofmann said it wasn't always effective. “The men and women that I represent are blue-collar workers, and it’s just not in the fiber of their being, to want to -- for a lack of a better way of describing it -- snitch out their employer,” he said. Fear of retaliation remains high, he explained.
Hofmann also flagged Aldyl A, a type of plastic used in many smaller gas distribution pipelines that's susceptible to cracking over time.
“It’s bad pipe,” he said. “It was bad when it was sold, and it’s worse now.”
While utility crews who perform maintenance on the pipe have taken to installing clamps as a preventive measure to safeguard against cracking over time, “We have no idea whether it’s working or not,” he explained. The plastic also has a greater propensity for static-electricity buildup, he said, creating the potential for it to become a source of ignition.
Tens of thousands of miles of Aldyl A pipe run underground throughout the state. Sumeet Singh, who oversees integrity management for PG&E, said in an interview that not all of it is a cause for concern, but that the utility has taken steps to identify which segments present a higher risk.
“We have a proactive program to go out and replace this type of pipe,” he said. On an annual basis, Singh estimated PG&E replaces 100 to 125 miles of distribution pipeline, the vast majority of which is Aldyl A. The company’s distribution network spans some 42,000 miles.
All told, San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson, who has been an advocate for reform ever since the 2010 gas-line rupture that killed eight San Bruno residents, said she was encouraged by the CPUC’s renewed focus on safety.
“The commission’s new and priority focus on safety comes as a direct result not just of the tragic incident, but the role that the city of San Bruno has played in forwarding these issues through the commission’s process,” Jackson said.