By Tony Kovaleski, Liz Wagner, and Felipe Escarnilla
In the wake of the Pacific Gas & Electric San Bruno pipeline explosion in September 2010 that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, the utility company has scrambled to improve its public image and performance. But the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has uncovered more proof that PG&E still has major problems with leaking pipes and lengthy repair delays.
A PG&E whistleblower came to the Investigative Unit to expose that time after time, the utility company has failed to meet deadlines for fixing leaking pipes and natural gas meters.
Ken Meyers, a PG&E leak surveyor now on leave, took Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski through some Bay Area neighborhoods where he and a fellow leak surveyor discovered leaks more than two years earlier. When Meyers returned to the same addresses in parts of Hayward, Mountain View and Danville, he tested meters attached to peoples' homes and businesses, and found many of the leaks hadn't been fixed.
When Kovaleski asked Meyers if he was frustrated by what he found he responded: "Yes, because these leaks are not getting fixed in time and I feel they are putting people in danger."
A document containing data from the California Public Utilities Commission obtained by NBC Bay Area shows that PG&E had 988 leaks that were not repaired in the time required by state regulators. Twelve of those leaks were given a designation of grade one--the most hazardous of all leaks that require immediate repair. The record shows 11 grade one leaks took up to 90 days to repair and one grade one leak took between four and six months to fix.
According to the data, 154 of the leaks were deemed grade two plus, which means the leaks are not hazardous but require repair within 90 days. And 822 leaks were pegged as grade two leaks, which need to be repaired within 18 months.
Meyers pointed out one Danville residence, which according to a PG&E daily leak survey log, had first been surveyed on December 3, 2009. When Meyers checked the meter at that home in May 2012--more 29 months later--it was still leaking.
"I am shocked," said homeowner Terri Tinucci. "First of all, like he said it's above my meter. There could be an explosion in my house. I have smelled it in my house."
Tinucci later said that she called PG&E the same day Meyers retested her meter, and that PG&E crews repaired the leak within two hours. She said she initially knew nothing about the grade two leak on her gas meter.
Meyers says PG&E has a policy of not informing customers of leaks on their properties--a rule he thinks the utility should change.
"It says they don't care about their customers," Meyers said. "I feel we are putting them at risk."
Kovaleski approached Kevin Knapp, Vice President of Gas Distribution at PG&E, about the whistleblower's concerns.
"Would you say PG&E has a problem with the number of leaks it currently has?" Kovaleski asked.
"I would say we have a plan in place to address the leaks. I think we can get better at managing our leak backlogs," Knapp said. "We have an aggressive program to eliminate all leaks we found in the two and two plus category before January and we will be done by October of this year."
Knapp added: "I think the leadership team we brought in is indicative of the fact that the company recognizes we have to have more focus on gas operations."
The Investigative Unit found more proof that PG&E doesn't want to draw attention to leaking meters. In an internal PG&E document from November 2011, PG&E instructed leak surveyors to stop tying yellow zip ties around leaking meters--a practice the utility company used to flag meters that needed repair. According to the document, the change discontinues a practice that "caused customer concern."
Knapp said the zip ties helped surveyors identify leaks, and that they are no longer necessary due to technological capabilities. He also said moving forward PG&E can develop a better protocol about how to respond to customers if they have concerns.
State regulatory records show PG&E has identified 51,229 active leaks as of October 2011. Federal data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration--the body that regulates gas distribution--shows PG&E leads all the nation's utility companies in the number of known leaks. According to the database, there were 12,233 known leaks in 2010.
A vast majority of the leaks are grade three leaks, which are considered non-hazardous, but Meyers questions the accuracy and integrity of his employer's reporting. Meyers said he was pressured to change the way he graded leaks.
"Our supervisors wanted to grade them down," he said.
Meyers said downgrading leaks gave PG&E more time to meet the repair deadlines established by the state.
Kovaleski asked Knapp about these accusations.
"A whistleblower, one of your employees, has come to us and said that there has been pressure over the last several months to tell the guys on the streets to lower how they are grading these leaks," Kovaleski said.
Knapp responded: "The information you are citing has appeared from evidence a couple, two, three years ago. I can tell you right now, that is not happening. There is absolutely no pressure to downgrade leaks. In fact, we want to find these leaks so we can repair them."
One Bay Area company has discovered even more problems for PG&E--new natural gas leaks that the utility company did not know even existed.
Santa Clara-based Picarro has developed a method of finding gas leaks using car-mounted detection instruments. According to Picarro, using the new technology PG&E analyzed 104 miles of its pipeline and the new equipment located 159 previously undetected leaks, including 20 leaks graded as hazardous.
"We have the ability of finding hazardous leaks that other technologies can't find," said Mike Woelk, president of Picarro.
But PG&E recently announced it will not fully implement the new leak detection technology for three years. According to the utility company's Gas Safety Plan released in June, PG&E plans to use the Picarro Surveyor in one division in 2012, three divisions in 2014, six divisions in 2015 and 10 divisions in 2016. Knapp said PG&E is currently testing Picarro equipment.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) has criticized PG&E since the San Bruno explosion in her district, and recently told the Investigative Unit that PG&E has to use better technology than what it currently uses to detect leaks.
"There are some grade one leaks that have been detected with more sophisticated equipment," Speier said. "And those are really serious leaks. Those are leaks that have to be fixed immediately. And those are the leaks that can create another San Bruno."
With the 2010 San Bruno explosion and gas leaks that led to last year's explosion and fire at a Cupertino condo complex and the 2008 pipeline explosion in Rancho Cordova, PG&E is left trying to regain consumer confidence and manage the damage of an employee turned whistleblower.
"They better start fixing these leaks in the time periods they should, and change this," Meyers said. "They need to let customers know what's going on--period. And I'm not going to stop."