Carmel mayor urges probe of natural gas explosion

The mayor of Carmel said Tuesday a formal investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission of a natural gas explosion in March “is the only procedural mechanism that would work for our community.”

Mayor Jason Burnett said:

“Our interests would be served only by the public process and robust process that a formal proceeding allows.”

Burnett requested the probe in a letter to the San Francisco-based commission Monday, following a 4-0 vote of authorization for the request by the City Council.

The PG&E-pipeline-related explosion on March 3 demolished an unoccupied five-room wooden house at the corner of Third Avenue and Guadalupe Street. No one was hurt.

According to a report prepared for PG&E by engineering consultant Exponent Inc. of Menlo Park in April, a PG&E Co. repair crew tapped into a 2-inch metal pipeline and punctured an internal plastic pipe that was not shown on the utility’s maps.

The puncture released pressurized natural gas that flowed into the space between the plastic and metal pipes, then into the soil and a sewer system connected to the house. The gas was ignited, probably by a stove pilot light, 15 to 30 minutes after the puncture, according to the report.

The root cause of the explosion was “inadequate verification of system status and configuration when performing work on a live line,” the consultant’s report said.

Burnett said Carmel officials are “deeply concerned” that the incident shows apparent record-keeping problems similar to those that played a role in a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

Burnett said Tuesday:

“There appears to be a fact pattern of repeated problems.”

Eight people died and 66 others were injured in the San Bruno explosion and fire on Sept. 9, 2010. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the cause was a rupture in a defective seam weld in a pipe segment that was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless.

Burnett’s letter asks the PUC to initiate a formal process, known as an order instituting investigation, to determine whether PG&E’s recording-keeping for the Carmel line violated federal or state pipeline safety laws or regulations:

“This explosion could easily have killed and seriously injured people and whether PG&E violated the law should not be ignored.”

The PUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division is already conducting a staff probe of the Carmel explosion. PUC spokesman Andrew Kotch said a staff investigation is normal procedure following an accident.

Kotch said the safety division has no deadline for completing its work and that it has the authority to levy fines of up to $50,000 per violation per day. A formal commission investigation, by contrast, would be a more public process in which documents and certain hearings would be open to public, Burnett said.

If the City Council decided to intervene and become a party in the case, “we can offer expert witnesses and cross-examine other witnesses if appropriate. There will be no short-circuiting of the process,” Burnett said.

A formal PUC proceeding is led by an administrative law judge and one commissioner. Their recommendation, which could include fines or other enforcement orders, is submitted to the full five-member commission for a decision. The process could take a year or more.

The PUC said in a statement:

“Our staff investigation is still in progress and potential enforcement actions are yet to be determined.”

San Francisco-based PG&E said:

“An order instituting investigation is a matter for our regulator to address. We’ll continue cooperating fully with the CPUC’s ongoing investigation into the incident.”

Separately, a federal grand jury in San Francisco is also looking into the Carmel explosion. PG&E spokesman Greg Snapper confirmed the utility received a grand jury subpoena for information related to the incident, but said PG&E did not know what federal prosecutors’ “interest or intent” might be.

In the San Bruno case, PG&E has been indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of obstructing justice in the NTSB probe and 27 counts of violating the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act in its record-keeping and management of the San Bruno pipeline and several other lines.

The utility has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is due to reappear in court, through its lawyer, for a status conference before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco on Sept. 22. A trial date has not yet been set.