Possible Causes of Deadly PG&E Blast

Investigators are apparently focusing on two lines of inquiry involving the age of the San Bruno gas-line. Plus, Whitman breaks spending record while lying about Brown.

As the probe of PG&E‘s deadly pipeline blast in San Bruno enters its third week, investigators appear to be focusing on at least two possible causes of the explosion that incinerated a neighborhood. One path of the investigation is examining possible pipeline corrosion. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that PG&E has been worried for at least a year that corrosion inside the aging San Bruno line might cause it to blow up.

The second line of inquiry involves too much pressure inside the decades-old pipe. The San Jose Mercury News reported that federal investigators have discovered that PG&E was operating the line at dangerously high pressure levels for such an old pipe — and at higher levels than the utility had disclosed. Pressure inside the line reached 386 pounds per square inch — not 375 as PG&E had stated publicly. Too much pressure has caused other pipelines to explode and experts said that the San Bruno line might have been too worn out to handle it.

Both theories might prove correct. Over-pressurizing a corroded pipe is a recipe for a disaster. But the Chronicle reported that PG&E apparently couldn’t tell if the pipeline was corroded because the utility was using outdated testing equipment. Indeed, PG&E’s claim that the pipeline had passed a recent inspection was based on such a test. Newer tests are more effective, PG&E acknowledges, but too expensive.

At the same time, state records show that PG&E has diverted tens of millions of dollars from pipeline maintenance to other things, the Contra Costa Times reported. For instance, in 2007 the utility got approval from state regulators to charge ratepayers $4.9 million so that it could replace a portion of the San Bruno pipeline — but then never did the work, the Chron reported. PG&E also asked state regulators last year if it could charge ratepayers $13 million more to replace another portion of the same pipe. But again, the work never even began.

PG&E’s spending choices also may have led to far more destruction in San Bruno than necessary. The utility has known for more than a decade that automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves on natural gas pipelines can save lives and property — yet for some reason chose not to install them. The Chron reported that because utility was still using manual shut-off valves, it took workers nearly two hours to turn off the gas that fed the deadly firestorm. According to federal officials, remotely controlled shut-off valves can turn off gas lines in ten minutes, and San Bruno fire officials said the difference could have proved crucial.

So what do all these missteps mean for PG&E CEO Peter Darbee? Apparently not much. Industry experts told the Chron that Darbee’s job is probably safe because PG&E’s monopoly will allow it to still make oodles of money. In other words, if you run a state-sanctioned monopoly, then you can make mistakes with impunity — from wasting $44 million on a failed statewide ballot measure to rolling out new “SmartMeters” that infuriate your customers.

Whitman Sets a Spending Record

Mega-wealthy Meg Whitman broke the national record last week for personal spending in a campaign. The former eBay head has used at least $119 million of her own fortune to try to buy the California governor’s mansion, surpassing the $110 million that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg shelled out last year. So what is she doing with all that money? In recent weeks, she’s spent some of it on TV ads that lie about Jerry Brown‘s record on taxes.

The ads show Bill Clinton criticizing Brown in a 1992 presidential debate for allegedly raising taxes during his first two-terms as governor. The only problem is — Clinton has since recanted his criticism because it was based at the time on an inaccurate news report. Yet when asked by a Yelp employee in San Francisco last week why she was continuing to run false ads in the campaign, Whitman maintained she was merely setting “the record straight” about Brown. In other words, she lied about the content of a lying ad. Sounds like Whitman is ready for politics after all.

Clinton, meanwhile, has decided to campaign for Brown even though the former Oakland mayor made an unfunny joke about the Monica Lewinsky affair when first asked about the Whitman ad. Brown later apologized for the gaffe, and Clinton then not only endorsed him, but promised to hit the campaign trail on his behalf. The popular former president also will campaign for other California Democrats this fall.

Three-Dot Roundup

One of the East Bay’s most contentious labor disputes ended last week, when Woodfin Suites of Emeryville agreed to pay hospitality workers $125,000 in back pay. Woodfin settled a legal dispute involving the hotel chain’s failure to abide by Emeryville’s living wage law. …UC Berkeley grad Sarah Shourd was released by her Iranian captors after spending more than a year in prison on spying charges. Shourd was arrested with two other Cal grads while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border. Shourd said again after her release that she and her friends were innocent. … A UC Berkeley’s chancellor’s panel recommends that Cal eliminate five to seven sports to help the athletics program stop losing so much money. The Express reported in July that a review of Cal financial documents shows that the university could eliminate six total men’s and women’s sports teams without seriously harming the athletics program. … Lawyers for Yusuf Bey IV, former head of Your Black Muslim Bakery, argued in court that he can’t get a fair trial in Alameda County because of publicity over the murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey. … And a state appellate panel dismissed a libel lawsuit filed by Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks against Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, saying he may have written false information about her, but it was not defamatory.

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