Audits: PG&E Delayed Checking Gas Pipes For Years

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The California utility under fire following a huge natural gas pipeline explosion put off inspecting its lines for years and used less thorough inspection techniques than its own safety guidelines recommended, according to state audits released Wednesday.

State regulators have been probing safety protocols at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the wake of September's deadly pipeline blast in San Bruno that left eight dead, dozens injured and 55 homes uninhabitable.

The California Public Utilities Commission's series of audits of the company included one ongoing investigation showing PG&E had put off some crucial inspections across its network of high-pressure transmission lines for more than two years. PG&E seemed to be "diluting" the inspection program's requirements and wasn't devoting enough company resources to ensuring its gas lines were safe, state auditors wrote in October 2010, the month after the deadly explosion laid waste to rows of suburban homes.

"We want to know why they weren't responded to in a timely manner," said Richard Clark, who directs the commission's consumer protection and safety division. "We're certainly concerned about the rescheduling of inspections and the changing of the methodologies, and we're not to the bottom line of answering why that happened."

Audits show the company on multiple occasions opted for an inspection technique known as external corrosion detection - essentially looking at a pipe from the outside to see if there are any problems - over a more rigorous approach known as in-line inspection. During the latter, robotic devices called "smart pigs" travel through a pipeline to search for corrosion, dents and other problems.

In response to the state's findings, PG&E said in a Dec. 16 letter that its inspection program "complies with (federal) requirements." But the company also acknowledged shortcomings in its inspection protocols and promised to fix them.

The records also showed that just two years ago, the utility did not have proper procedures in place to ensure staff was following key safety bulletins from federal regulators.

"The audits help identify instances where our practices fall short of our own standards," said company spokesman Joe Molica. "PG&E recognizes that the total number of findings reported by both PG&E and the CPUC is unacceptably high, and we are moving on multiple fronts to enhance the safety of our gas transmission and distribution systems."