Damning Testimony Over Fatal PG&E Explosion

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Pacific Gas and Electric obstructed an investigation of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood, a federal investigator told jurors Wednesday.
Ravindra “Ravi” Chhatre, a National Transportation Safety Board official who led a yearlong investigation into the cause of the blast, said PG&E misled investigators, sat on evidence and improperly interviewed witnesses before they gave testimony.
Chhatre, the prosecution’s final witness in a criminal trial over PG&E’s alleged violation of pipeline safety laws, delivered some of the most damning testimony of the trial.
The federal accident investigator, who worked for PG&E before joining the NTSB in 1998, described how the company tried to hide its practice of ignoring over-pressurizations on pipelines in populated areas.
After the blast, PG&E gave the NTSB a document on its risk management policies, which stated it would prioritize pipe segments as “high risk” only if the pressure climbed 10 percent or more above the maximum allowed.
That standard differs starkly from federal regulations, which require that any spike in pressure above the maximum trigger immediate testing or replacement of a pipeline.
Several months after submitting that file, PG&E sent the NTSB a letter stating that the document was merely a draft and did not reflect an official policy of the company
“We have not identified a cover sheet for this and have no evidence this was ever approved,” PG&E’s vice president of gas maintenance and construction, William Hayes, wrote to the NTSB on April 6, 2011.
Chhatre said he does not believe PG&E was being truthful about the document.
“Nothing in the document had a draft stamp on it, and it took several months for that letter to come to me,” Chhatre said. “I was convinced that was their practice.”
Chhatre told jurors he was dismayed by the lack of cooperation from PG&E employees during witness interviews for the NTSB investigation.
Although the agency seeks to determine the causes of accidents to prevent future calamities and has no authority to assign criminal blame, Chhatre said PG&E attorneys created a hostile environment and treated the interviews as though they were part of a criminal proceeding.
“When most PG&E employees we interviewed, the attorneys were raising objections,” Chhatre said. “At one point an attorney accused me of being unprofessional.”
Chhatre said he was especially perturbed when a contractor who worked on Line 132 said he had “told this to PG&E and its attorneys a few days ago” before the NTSB interview.
Having company attorneys meet with witnesses before they testify was a major breach of PG&E’s agreement to cooperate with the investigation, Chhatre said.
Prosecutors asked Chhatre about PG&E’s failure to turn over a 1988 leak repair record until May 2011, several months after NTSB requested all leak repair data for Line 132.
That record would have revealed that PG&E inaccurately listed the pipeline as seamless rather than welded in its flawed record system.
“This is part of my frustration with this investigation,” Chhatre said. “I always got information too little, too late.”
Chhatre was asked about PG&E’s explanation to NTSB about why it did not conduct required pressure tests or in-line inspections on pipe segments where the pressure surpassed the maximum allowed under federal law.
In a February 2011 document, PG&E stated that pressure spikes, such as one recorded on Line 132 in December 2008, were “within generous safety margins” built into the line’s maximum allowable operating pressure.
“That is not only inaccurate, but it is surprising coming from the Integrity Management Division because there is no safety margin,” Chhatre said. He explained that “grandfathered” lines such as Line 132 in San Bruno were never pressure tested and therefore had no margin of safety.
When asked if he believes PG&E intentionally tried to mislead investigators, Chhatre replied, “Yes.”
He said that’s why he asked the company to assign a new liaison to the NTSB during the probe.
Chhatre said that was the first and only time in his 18 years as an NTSB investigator that the agency requested a new party representative, or liaison, during an investigation.
PG&E was expected to cross examine Chhatre on Wednesday, and PG&E attorney Steven Bauer said he planned to treat the federal investigator as a “hostile witness.”
In recent trial days, Bauer hinted that PG&E may rest its case without calling any defense witnesses, but the utility company made an about-face on Wednesday.
Bauer said he likely will call witnesses from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and another witness to testify on pressure test records.
The trial began on June 17 and was expected to last six to eight weeks.
If convicted of all 12 counts of violating U.S. Pipeline Safety Act regulations and one count of obstructing an investigation, PG&E faces a potential fine of $562 million.
Last year, the California Public Utility Commission fined the company $1.6 billion for the San Bruno explosion, the largest penalty ever assessed against a utility in the state’s history.

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