SAN BRUNO -- PG&E said Wednesday it has discovered flaws in the training for hundreds of employees who fuse together plastic pipes used to deliver natural gas to customers, the latest stumble for the utility as it faces the prospect of a big fine and new criminal charges over a fatal explosion in San Bruno.

"The natural gas system is still safe," said Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of asset knowledge management. "We do not consider this to be a safety concern. We do a proof test, pressure tests, on all the pipes that are fused together."

San Francisco-based PG&E notified its principal regulator, the state Public Utilities Commission, and cities that it serves about the flaws in the training and qualification for employees.

A PG&E work crew installs a valve in a gas line in preparation for a hydro-test of a major natural gas transmission pipe that runs through Mountain View on
A PG&E work crew installs a valve in a gas line in preparation for a hydro-test of a major natural gas transmission pipe that runs through Mountain View on Aug. 19, 2011. (Gary Reyes/Staff file)

Employees who are responsible for heat fusion of plastic pipes are required to take a test to become qualified. Then about a year after that, the employees must take a second set of tests to requalify them for the pipe fusion. The utility found out that the second test to requalify workers was not being completely done.

PG&E isn't sure for how long it has been conducting the flawed requalification tests, but Singh said the problem "goes back several years."

The utility said it has halted heat fusion work until employees complete the requalification session. About 1,400 workers are involved in the work, Singh estimated. PG&E said it routinely uses heat fusion in its gas distribution system.


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"This includes new construction, repairs and pipe upgrades," PG&E said in the letter to the PUC and officials of cities served by the utility's natural gas system.

San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson expressed concern about the disclosure of the incomplete training for requalification.

"Given the number of incidents that continue to occur where lines are failing for various reasons, we have strong and continuing concerns about the safety of the PG&E system and the oversight by the PUC of the utility," she said.

Jackson said an official with a firm that had been contracted by PG&E to undertake upgrades in San Bruno of natural gas pipelines complained "vigorously" to Jackson that some of the work in her city was being conducted improperly. That work was done to repair or replace pipes in and near the San Bruno neighborhood that was blown up by a 2010 gas pipeline explosion.

The blast killed eight people, injured 66 and destroyed 38 homes. PG&E faces a fine of up to $2 billion as its punishment for the explosion and also must contend with a federal criminal prosecution and felony charges resulting from the disaster. Investigators blamed the explosion on shoddy maintenance, flawed record-keeping and lax regulatory oversight.

PG&E said one or more company employees alerted the utility to the incomplete training procedures.

"Whenever there is a gap in our efforts, we address it," said Greg Snapper, a PG&E spokesman. "We are working every day to make our natural gas system safer."

Contact George Avalos at 408-859-5167. Follow him at Twitter.com/georgeavalos.