SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An engineer pushed for Pacific Gas and Electric to perform more rigorous tests on its pipes before a fatal gas line explosion killed eight people, but the company pushed back, the witness told jurors Thursday.
Frank Dauby, a 32-year PG&E employee who has held leadership roles in risk assessment and inspections, said he and his supervisor had a “healthy debate” about which testing method should be used on lines in populated areas.
Dauby testified in the fourth week of a criminal trial over PG&E’s alleged violation of pipeline safety laws. The company was indicted in 2014, four years after a pipeline exploded in San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010, killing eight people, injuring 58 and destroying 38 homes.
Dauby and previous witnesses described his former boss, Robert Fassett, as a “champion” of external corrosion direct assessment, or ECDA, a method prosecutors have portrayed as a cheap and inadequate substitute for more rigorous tests that must be done on pipes with active threats, under federal law.
In a 2005 email, Fassett said the decision to use the less costly ECDA method, which checks only the exterior of pipes at certain locations, “has saved the company millions.”
In contrast, Dauby wrote in 2008 that ECDA “rarely finds corrosion” and that federal regulations require PG&E to use a testing method “best suited” to the threats identified on each line.
Dauby said he felt at times he needed to be an advocate for in-line inspections, or ILI, a more costly and thorough method that involves sending a pipeline inspection gadget, or PIG, into a line to collect data on its internal conditions.
PG&E slashed nearly $2 million from its 2010 budget by switching lines from ILI to ECDA and deferring maintenance, according to emails shown to jurors Thursday.
In a 2009 memo, integrity management supervisor Sara Burke wrote that unlike deferred maintenance, which simply put off costs to future years, switching lines from ILI to ECDA produced “sustainable hard savings” for the company.
“ILI finds things that need repair,” Dauby said. “That will drive up costs. You’re not having to spend money on the repairs.”
Directed by his superiors, Dauby said, he drafted new guidelines to make ECDA the primary assessment tool for most pipelines. Under those criteria, ECDA would be performed on all pipes within five or fewer miles in a populated area that operate at 30 percent or less of their specified minimum yield strength: the minimum stress a pipe can withstand before deforming.
Dauby said he also was asked to create “exceptions” to justify using ECDA on lines that fell outside of those criteria, including lines that flowed through more than five miles of a densely populated area.
“It’s not illegal, but it didn’t follow our procedures, so we needed an exception,” Dauby said.
In response to a question from federal prosecutor Jeff Schenk, Dauby acknowledged that cost was the primary reason for moving pipeline tests from ILI to ECDA.
Dauby said he still believes today that ECDA rarely finds significant corrosion and that ILI is a better method for identifying threats to a pipeline.
On cross examination, PG&E attorney Kate Dyer framed her questions to point out that only ECDA can identify problems with a pipe’s exterior coating or cathodic protection system, which helps prevent corrosion.
Judge Blocks ‘Cover-Up Email’ From Reaching Jury
In a Thursday morning ruling, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson refused to let prosecutors show the jury an email Dauby wrote three hours after the San Bruno explosion, on Sept. 9, 2010.
In that email, Dauby warned colleagues not to put anything in writing about the rupture of Line 132 and to copy a PG&E attorney on any emails about the incident so the information would be protected by attorney-client privilege.
Henderson ruled that that evidence carries a substantial risk to provoke a “negative emotional reaction” in the jury, which outweighs its value as evidence to support the government’s claim that PG&E tried to cover up the cause of the blast.
Prosecutors and PG&E attorneys squabbled Thursday over whether PG&E should be allowed to present a map showing where PG&E employees live in relation to gas pipelines. PG&E attorney Margaret Tough said the evidence is necessary for PG&E to defend itself against the government’s allegation that its workers “knowingly and willfully” defied safety laws.
PG&E is accused of violating 12 counts of recordkeeping and testing regulations under the federal Pipeline Safety Act and of obstructing an investigation into the cause of the San Bruno explosion.
If convicted, the company faces a potential $562 million fine.
Prosecutors said they expect to rest their case next week. The trial is expected to continue until mid-August.
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