June 21–The consumer advocacy group within the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) accused San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas of “making misrepresentations and false statements” about the safety records of a 16-inch-wide natural gas pipeline built in 1949 that the two utilities operate.
Furthermore, the Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA) says the inaccuracies have “significant safety implications” because the line runs within 220 yards of a large apartment complex in Mira Mesa. An elementary school and a public park are located across the street from the apartments.
Called Line 1600, the pipeline runs about 50 miles, jogging north and south from the Rainbow Station in Fallbrook to Miramar. The 69-year-old pipeline is at the heart of a $639 million request SDG&E and SoCalGas has before the CPUC to build a separate, wider pipeline.
“Record-keeping matters,” said Elizabeth Echols, director of ORA which filed a motion with the CPUC late Wednesday afternoon to impose sanctions — including fines — on SDG&E and SoCalGas.
Jimmie Cho, SDG&E senior vice president, said, “SDG&E is operating this pipeline safely; there is no higher priority.”
As per federal regulations, pipelines are assigned classes between 1 and 4, with Class 4 designated for areas with higher population densities and a prevalence of structures four stories or higher. According to ORA, SDG&E and SoCalGas have maintained all the locations along Line 1600 are no higher than Class 3.
But ORA says the Casa Mira View apartment complex off Westview Parkway, containing nearly two dozen five-story buildings with more than 1,000 units already built and about 1,300 more coming, should be categorized as Class 4. ORA even sent members of its staff to the complex earlier this month and said the pipeline runs within 220 yards of the apartments, to the east of the complex.
Hage Elementary School and Westview Park are located across the street from the complex — to the west, farther from the pipeline.
“I want to be careful here to not overly alarm the local community because we’re not aware of any immediate threat,” Echols told the Union-Tribune in a telephone interview.
“But (when) we can feel certain that the records are what they need to be and SDG&E and SoCalGas knows what’s in the ground throughout their network — but this line in particular is what we’re focused on right now — then we will sleep better at night.”
Cho said ORA has “raised these claims in our application (to build a larger pipeline for $639 million), which has been under review for several years. We have addressed them and disagree with their assertions. We stand behind our position regarding the safety and compliance of this line.”
The Union-Tribune sent an email to the management of the Casa Mira View apartment complex late Wednesday afternoon to get a reaction to the ORA’s motion but did not receive a reply.
In the aftermath of a Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight people, the state Legislature passed new regulations that called for replacing or pressure-testing gas lines across California.
Given the age of Line 1600, SDG&E and SoCalGas opted to go before the CPUC and ask the commission to approve building a new pipeline 36 inches in diameter.
Dubbed the “Pipeline Safety and Reliability Project,” SDG&E and SoCalGas say the larger pipeline will improve safety, system reliability and resiliency while also adding capacity to the gas system in the San Diego area.
The CPUC’s five commissioners are scheduled to vote on the fate of the 36-inch pipeline project Thursday in San Francisco.
Last month, a CPUC administrative law judge assigned to the case recommended the project be rejected, saying SDG&E and SoCalGas “have not shown why it is necessary to build a very costly pipeline to substantially increase gas pipeline capacity in an era of declining demand and at a time when the state of California is moving away from fossil fuels.”
The records kept by SDG&E and SoCalGas on Line 1600 were a source of contention in the run-up to the administrative law judge’s proposed decision.
The ORA said at the time “the record is replete with evidence that SoCalGas/SDG&E’s safety data is incomplete, incorrect, or missing.”
The utilities denied the claim, saying they “did not deliberately suppress evidence or evade” requests for data but admitted they “could have been more explicit in communications.”
The administrative law judge, Colette Kersten, wrote, “it is clear” the utilities “did not aggressively and diligently ” take the necessary steps to “ensure timely updates of Line 1600 pipeline data” and has called for SDG&E and SoCalGas to hire an independent bidder at their own expense to perform an audit on the records used to track data on Line 1600.
In the motion filed Wednesday, the ORA accused SDG&E and SoCalGas of refusing to provide ORA with safety information confirming the frequency of their inspections of Line 1600.
ORA also said in ex parte meetings — conversations not in a public forum that have to be documented — in the office of CPUC commissioners the utilities provided photos of “a number of four-story and higher buildings in the immediate vicinity of Line 1600” but would not give ORA any information about the photos.
“The CPUC’s proposed decision calls for a formal audit, which we welcome,” Cho said.
In an interview earlier this week with the Union-Tribune, Cho said, “Our records have always been complete. The information was audited by the Safety Enforcement Division (of the CPUC) and also we have replied to the Office of Ratepayer Advocates with 50-plus pages of detailed information.”
Echols said the ORA announcement on the eve of the vote on the $639 million pipeline project was not intended to sway commissioners one way or the other, saying the information about the photos “just came to our attention a couple of weeks ago.”
Echols said the motion was filed because “I didn’t want to sit on anything that could impact public safety” and, “frankly, if we waited until after (the vote Thursday), the proceeding might be closed and we wouldn’t necessarily have a vehicle for filing this.”
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