Posts Tagged ‘Pacific Gas & Electric’

Monday, March 25, 2013 @ 11:03 AM gHale

Utilities remain on alert at all times because of the potential harm one little cyber attack could cause, but California officials are especially on their toes these days.

The California Public Utilities Commission is now considering rules to bolster cyber-security protections to prevent potentially devastating attacks.

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The agency warned utilities were becoming vulnerable to cyber attacks as their networks add smart meters and other computerized gear. Many providers are reluctant to report they suffered an attack because they worry disclosure could expose them to liability.

Experts say a cyber attack against an electric utility could lead to massive power outages that shut down water and transportation, threaten the sick and elderly and cause billions of dollars in damage.

“We will see catastrophic outages,” James Sample, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s (PG&E) chief information security officer, warned state regulators at an energy company forum. “We are dealing with a very intelligent adversary.”

Although PG&E doesn’t believe hackers have caused major problems at the San Francisco-based utility, Sample said, “We’re seeing increased phishing-type attempts,” typically fake emails aimed at stealing information.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported hackers were infiltrating “oil and natural gas pipelines and electric power organizations at an alarming rate.” The agency said it knew of 198 such “cyber-incidents” just last year.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 @ 02:10 PM gHale

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Corp.’s Diablo Canyon nuclear station in California could withstand an earthquake generated by an offshore fault identified in 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said.

The NRC’s report focuses on the latest identified earthquake source, called the “Shoreline fault,” just offshore from the plant in San Luis Obispo County, about 183 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

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PG&E welcomed the NRC finding “which confirms that Diablo Canyon is seismically safe and is designed to withstand the maximum ground motions that seismic faults in the region are believed capable of producing.”

PG&E notified the NRC about the Shoreline fault in 2008. At 2,240 megawatts, Diablo Canyon is the larger of the state’s two nuclear power plants, supplying about 10 percent of the state’s power needs.

“Both PG&E and the NRC are continuing to look at the seismic characteristics of the Shoreline fault,” said NRC spokesman Victor Dricks. “This research information letter represents the staff’s latest analysis and basically concludes that the plant, as designed, would withstand any earthquake the Shoreline fault would generate.”

An NRC team visited the site in 2011, the agency said. Analysis from the visit and available information indicates that ground motion from earthquakes the Shoreline fault could potentially generate would fall within Diablo Canyon’s existing design limits, the agency said.

The plant’s design limits come from ground motion associated with an earthquake from the larger Hosgri fault near the plant, the NRC said.

Separately, PG&E is performing a $64 million seismic research effort mandated by the state legislature using three-dimensional seismic tests to better understand the hazards posed by potential earthquakes near the plant.

In August, the California State Lands Commission voted to allow the utility to move forward with the advanced tests using powerful sonar devices despite concerns about the impact on marine life.

At the request of the utility, its NRC application to extend the two Diablo Canyon reactors’ operating licenses beyond 2024 and 2025 will not finalize until the advanced seismic research called for by the state is completed.

Diablo Canyon must perform additional earthquake evaluations, as well as a “walkdown” to identify any near-term actions for enhancing earthquake resistance as part of the agency’s ongoing response to the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in Japan which ended up triggered by an earthquake and tsunami.

Monday, March 19, 2012 @ 05:03 PM gHale

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) will pay $3.6 million to settle claims the utility failed to stem toxic chromium pollution in a Mojave Desert city.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the settlement last week. As part of the settlement, in which PG&E did not acknowledge wrongdoing, half of the money will go toward developing a fresh water supply for the elementary school.

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The board claimed the utility failed to contain a plume of chromium 6 that polluted the Hinkley water supply. PG&E once used chromium 6 to reduce corrosion at cooling towers.

Kevin Sullivan, a PE&E engineer charged with the cleanup, said parents have voiced concerns about the water quality at the elementary school. The utility had been providing bottled water for teachers and students and planned to extend a pipeline to inject fresh water into the plume to keep it away from the school’s wells.

In 1996, the utility agreed to pay $333 million to Hinkley residents to settle claims of illness stemming from contaminated water. The suit inspired the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

In 2008, the plume of chromium began spreading. Despite efforts by PG&E to stem the problem, tests last year showed it was growing again. The reported chromium levels are low enough not to violate drinking water standards but residents remain concerned.

Monday, September 5, 2011 @ 09:09 AM gHale

A utility’s lax approach to pipeline safety and weak government oversight was the cause of a California natural gas explosion that destroyed a neighborhood and killed eight people nearly a year ago.

In a scathing report on the blast in San Bruno just south of San Francisco, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co for years exploited regulatory weaknesses, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

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“We also identified regulators that placed a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing to the detriment of public safety,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said.

The half-century-old gas transmission line ruptured on Sept. 9, 2010, ejecting a 28-foot section of pipe and igniting a ferocious fire that destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 others. Eight people were killed and dozens of others were hurt.

The safety board found the piping installed four-feet underground in 1956 did not meet certain specifications and the welds were poorly constructed.

Poor quality control and follow-up, the board said, resulted in the defective piping going undetected for decades. The blast, investigators said, was “clearly preventable.”

Regulatory exemptions of certain regulations by the California Public Utility Commission and the U.S. Transportation Department contributed to the explosion, the safety board said.

The NTSB has issued a number of urgent safety recommendations to regulators and the pipeline industry to address the deficiencies it identified during its investigation.

PG&E said in a statement it has “completely reviewed and begun the overhaul” of its gas operations, and has made “fundamental changes to our operations and management” to boost safety.

The company said it would “fully embrace” NTSB recommendations and “incorporate them into our plans.”

The California Public Utility Commission said it would work to ensure PG&E correct any deficiencies. Additionally, the agency said it had ordered utilities to test or replace certain pipes and would evaluate NTSB recommendations for additional natural gas pipeline safety.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 @ 11:06 PM gHale

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and its regulator had a culture of checking off boxes, rather than deeply considering the safety of their system, according a report released late last week by an independent panel.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) created the panel last year to assess the factors that contributed to the explosion of a PG&E gas pipeline in San Bruno last September, which took the lives of eight people and destroyed dozens of homes.

The panel found:
• PG&E and CPUC had a culture more attuned to simply complying with federal code than focusing on the safety of their system.
• A failure at PG&E and CPUC to adequately learn from mistakes or problems discovered internally and elsewhere in the industry.
• Major problems with the quality and availability of records about pipeline safety.
• At PG&E, a focus on the occupational safety of employees, but no similar focus on the pipeline system’s safety.
• A lack of technical understanding among the management at PG&E.
• People low on the totem pole at CPUC had indeed discovered some problems at PG&E, but people at the top of the agency never took those concerns seriously.
• PG&E’s “Pipeline 2020”, it’s response to the explosion, is unimpressive and prescriptive.
• CPUC remains understaffed and undertrained.

Commissioners heard the testimony of the panelists and vowed to take their recommendations seriously. Commission president Michael Peevey called the report “damning of PG&E across the board,” and agreed there has been a history of a “culture of complacency” at CPUC.

Shortly after the report hit the street, PG&E issued a statement calling the report “thoughtful” and saying they are moving quickly to adopt its recommendations. Their statement also took full responsibility for the explosion.

“We are deeply sorry for the tragic accident in San Bruno. And we are committed to earning our customers’ trust and confidence by continuing to do whatever is necessary to bring our performance up to industry-leading standards and see that an accident like the one in San Bruno never happens again,” officials said in a statement.

Monday, May 2, 2011 @ 05:05 PM gHale

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) should replace or perform water pressure tests on 705 miles of its oldest natural gas pipes because state regulators have “become increasingly uncomfortable” with the utility’s claim that it can set safe pressure levels for those pipes using “assumptions.”

If regulators approve the recommendation from the staff of the California Public Utilities (PUC), the hydro-tests could disrupt gas service for untold numbers of PG&E’s customers, cost the company $350 million and take five years to complete. Replacing pipe also could inconvenience customers and typically costs far more per mile.

The commission had ordered PG&E to calculate safe pressure levels for its gas lines based on the pipes’ construction, inspection and other records. In response, PG&E last week said it “does not believe it will find specific records of every component” and asked to base the pressure levels on its assumptions about the lines, using what files it has.

That request did not go far as Richard Clark, director of the commission’s safety branch, said “we do not believe that reliance upon indirect evidence of the material condition of PG&E’s natural gas transmission system is sufficient.”

PG&E spokeswoman Brittany Chord said the company “will be working with the commission to better understand the impacts this may have on PG&E’s operations.” She said “we have already taken many steps to further enhance the safety of our system,” which includes reducing the gas pressure in 10 transmission pipes at the commission’s direction.

Concerns about PG&E’s pipe pressure levels are the result of the Sept. 9 San Bruno gas line explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. While investigating the blast, federal investigators discovered the pipe, which had welding defects, burst at a pressure that was less than what PG&E thought was safe.

In addition, the utility’s records mistakenly described the ruptured segment as not any welds along its length, an error investigators said could have fooled the company into thinking the pipe was stronger than it really was.

In January, the commission ordered PG&E to locate records to prove it has set safe pressure levels for all 1,805 miles of its urban gas lines. But PG&E failed to meet the March 15 deadline to find all of the files, especially for its older pipes, many of which went in to the ground when record-keeping rules were more lax than they are today.

Because it didn’t meet that deadline, PG&E could face a $3 million fine. It also could face more fines if the PUC determines its record-keeping practices violated the law.

PG&E has vowed to hydro-test or replace 152 miles of pipe with characteristics similar to that of the burst San Bruno segment this year. However, the directive that it hydro-test or replace an additional 553 miles, would mean more work and expense.

Experts estimate hydro-testing, which involves forcing water at high pressure into pipe segments to look for leaks, costs $150,000 to $500,000 per mile. The procedure also typically requires removing a line from service for a week or longer.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 @ 03:03 PM gHale

Shortly before a fiery pipeline blast that left eight dead in San Bruno, CA, utility crews raced to stop gas pressure surges they feared would cause a “major, major problem.”

Operators knew as long as half an hour before the Sept. 9 blast that a botched repair job in a nearby control station was letting natural gas flow unabated, but felt powerless to fix the problem remotely, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. records.

According to call logs released by the federal government: “Something opened that shouldn’t have,” one unnamed gas control operator told a colleague 20 minutes before the explosion. “They’re scrambling in Milpitas right now trying to figure out what the hell opened and what’s going on.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating what caused the explosion, which employees called a “living nightmare” later that night.

Eight people died, dozens suffered injuries and 55 homes destroyed after a giant, gas-fueled fireball swallowed portions of a neighborhood in San Bruno.

Federal investigators have said the power failure at the control station, a major intersection for gas transmission lines about 30 miles from the blast site, allowed a regulating valve on the line feeding San Bruno to open fully and for pressure to rise.

But at 6:40 p.m., nearly half an hour after the explosion, workers were still debating whether a plane had hit, a gas station blew up or it was a pipeline accident.

PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said in a statement Tuesday the utility has been working with regulators since the accident to improve the safety of its system.

“We are not, however, waiting for mandates from legislators or regulators: PG&E already is making pipeline safety changes,” he said. “We have launched a number of initiatives to reevaluate, restructure and strengthen our gas system operations and the management of our natural gas system. We have brought in independent experts to help us with our review of some of our gas control practices, including alarm management systems.”

The section of pipe that ruptured first went in the ground in 1956. An NTSB examination after the accident revealed it had a seam and inferior welds, although PG&E records had inaccurately identified the pipe as being seamless.

Thursday, January 6, 2011 @ 09:01 AM gHale

Urgent safety recommendations came out Monday pressing for major changes at the California utility responsible for the gas pipeline that exploded in a San Francisco suburb last year, killing eight people.

Six of the seven recommendations released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) earned the urgent classification.

The board has been investigating what caused the Sept. 9 explosion that destroyed dozens of homes in San Bruno. Officials have not determined an exact cause but think the pipeline may have burst under high gas pressure.

One of the urgent recommendations asks Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to identify all gas transmission lines that haven’t yet undergone testing for safe operating pressures. The NTSB also urged California regulators to make sure the utility follows through on the testing.

The NTSB’s recommendations follows a disclosure by federal accident investigators last month the ruptured segment of the gas pipeline had a weld along its spine known as a seam weld. PG&E previously had submitted documents to state regulators showing it was unaware the pipeline had the type of welds that investigators are now examining in their search for a cause for the explosion.

“While it may seem like a small paperwork error, if companies are basing operating pressures on inadequate or erroneous information contained in their records, safety may be compromised,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. “This safety-critical issue needs to be examined carefully.”

In addition, communication problems between local governments and utilities is a national issue, another report found.

The explosion also highlighted a lack of planning and communication among utility companies, local governments, builders and homeowners — not just in California but nationwide.

That was the conclusion of a 130-member task force on pipeline safety sponsored by the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance issued a set of guidelines to head off catastrophes like the San Bruno blast.

Real estate, government and utility-company representatives teamed to write the report with the help of fire safety and emergency management officials.

More than 295,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines and 164,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines moves fuels through areas that once were rural, but now densely populated, including areas throughout California’s Bay Area and East Bay.

The recommendations include requiring local governments to get maps of all transmission lines in areas where development might take place and requiring utilities to coordinate with developers for projects planned near transmission lines. They include measures to speed emergency response and evacuation in the event of a leak or explosion.

“Until now, city regulations would only assure that a pipeline being placed in the ground is located inside an easement in any location where they are not on property owned by the utility company,” San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said in an e-mail.

A PG&E spokesman said the company is reviewing the report.

It is no mandate: Local governments can choose which guidelines to implement, if any, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Lawmakers and utilities are studying pipeline-safety technology such as “smart pigs”—robotic devices that inspect the integrity of a transmission line. In the meantime, a structure for communication can prevent a tragedy, according to the report.

Soon after the Sept. 9 explosion, PG&E, pressured by state regulators, released a list of its 100 most dangerous pipelines.

The ranking comes from the potential for corrosion, design flaws and third-party damage. At the top of the list were several sections of a petroleum pipeline that runs through the Livermore Valley. PG&E’s 30-inch San Bruno pipeline was No. 16 on the list, but not the portion of the steel line that ruptured.

Along the Interstate 680 corridor, the biggest fuel line is the 10-inch Kinder Morgan pipeline that lies alongside the Iron Horse Trail and runs through the heart of Walnut Creek, as well as Alamo, Danville and San Ramon. It carries gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Martinez to San Jose.

This pipeline carries fuel just feet away from schools, motels, homes and parks. This high-pressure pipeline burst in Walnut Creek in 2004 — a half mile or so from downtown, across South Broadway from Las Lomas High School and adjacent to a residential neighborhood. A backhoe struck a section of the pipe and set off an explosion that shot 60 feet into the air, killed five workers, burned five others badly and destroyed one house.

One of the recommendations in the report is pipelines be boldly identified with markers, yet many in San Bruno did not make a connection between the bright yellow stripes along the pipelines and a potential hazard.

 
 
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