PG&E Engineer Defends Cheaper Gas Line Test

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric on Friday tried to debunk claims that it used a cheaper, inadequate method to test pipes that would never have detected problems that led to a fatal pipeline explosion in 2010.
Federal prosecutors ended the second full week of a criminal trial against the utility giant by questioning their fifth witness, David Aguiar, a 31-year employee of PG&E who was in charge of conducting external corrosion direct assessments, or ECDAs, on pipelines.
Prosecutors say PG&E chose to perform the cheaper external checks on pipes like the one that exploded in San Bruno in 2010, instead of conducting required hydro-pressure strength tests which can cost $200,000 to $5000,000 per mile of pipe.
Aguiar described ECDA as a four-step process that includes identifying parts of a pipe most susceptible to corrosion, digging up the pipe and inspecting its exterior for problems.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Schenk showed Aguiar corrosion surveys from 2004 and 2009 that lacked details about the causes of prior leaks on Line 132, the line that exploded in San Bruno in 2010.
Schenk asked the witness if he ever found missing repair records or information that led him to recommend using a more rigorous testing method on a pipeline.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Aguiar replied.
Aguiar told prosecutors that external corrosion checks could not identify manufacturing threats, such as the problematic welded seam on Line 132, which was mislabeled as seamless rather than welded in PG&E’s flawed record system.
Schenk showed the jury another corrosion survey from 2003, which noted three prior pipeline leaks with an unknown cause. Despite the lack of information, Aguiar had written “no missing data elements” on the survey.
During cross-examination, PG&E attorney Margaret Tough focused her questions to emphasize the value of the ECDA method.
“Corrosion control is very important,” Aguiar said during PG&E’s inquiry, adding that soil in the Bay Area makes underground pipes more susceptible to rust than in dryer areas of the state.
As Tough delved into the detailed nuances of external corrosion checks, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson asked her to clarify why such information was relevant to the case.
“I believe part of the government’s argument is that ECDA is a subpar method so I’m trying to show how robust it is and how much is involved,” Tough told the judge.
To debunk claims that PG&E opted for external corrosion checks to save money and enlarge profits, Tough asked Aguiar how much it costs to dig up pipelines in populated areas.
The engineer said it could cost $100,000 to $150,000 to excavate pipe segments in those areas.
Tough then showed the jury a July 2007 email from PG&E’s Integrity Management director Bob Fassett, in which Fassett recommended doing a hydro-pressure strength test on a pipeline even though it would cost more money.
In that email, Fassett wrote: “Although I appreciate the focus on dollars and whether its capital or expenses, this is about doing the right thing and if that means spending more money, then so be it.”
Going back to Aguiar’s earlier testimony that he never found an issue that caused him to recommend using a different testing method, Tough asked what the engineer would do if he did find a significant area of concern.
Aguiar replied he would immediately alert his superiors about such a problem if he encountered one.
Tough then asked Aguiar if he lives near gas pipeline. The engineer said he lives close to Line 105.
“Is that a concern?” Tough asked.
“No,” Aguiar replied.
Ending the week’s testimony, Aguiar told the jury he would never knowingly or willfully defy federal pipeline safety regulations.
PG&E faces 12 counts of violating recordkeeping and testing requirements under the federal Pipeline Safety Act and one count of obstructing an investigation into the cause of a 2010 pipeline explosion.
The rupture of Line 132 in a residential neighborhood of San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010, killed eight people, injured at least 58 and destroyed 38 homes.
If convicted, the utility company faces a $562 million fine.
Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $1.6 billion, the largest penalty ever assessed against a utility company in the state’s history.
The criminal trial is expected to continue until mid-August.

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