SAN FRANCISCO (AP) ― Increased scrutiny of how natural gas pipelines are being inspected in California has revealed that the state has only a small group of inspectors to check 110,000 miles of gas pipelines, mobile home park systems and propane distributors across the state.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in its review of public records and other documents between 2003 and 2009, the California Public Utilities Commission was the only state agency enforcing federal rules that fell short each year in meeting the federal government’s minimum inspection levels.

The CPUC has acknowledged that its current staff of nine inspectors is smaller than what the federal government recommends, but has termed the inspectors as “very aggressive and very effective.”

After the deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno on Sept. 9, the commission announced plans to add to its inspection team.

Under federal rules, gas lines operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and other utilities must be inspected once every other year.

Additionally, gas systems in 2,650 mobile home parks and 676 propane distributors must be inspected once every five years.

The Chronicle’s review found that, at best, seven to nine state inspectors were only able to reach about 90 percent of the federal government’s inspection level during that period.

The newspaper also found that smaller operators were the subject of all the state-issued fines and more than 90 percent of the infraction notices issued by inspectors since 1999, while a major utility has not been fined for a natural gas pipeline violation since at least 1998.

The CPUC typically notifies utility companies two months in advance before conducting an inspection, according to Julie Halligan, deputy director for the consumer protection and safety division of the commission.

As part of the inspection process, inspectors examine the companies’ self-audits, conduct spot checks of equipment, and review performance records, emergency systems and training programs, said Halligan.

Commission officials acknowledge that with a small inspection team, inspectors can only check a small portion every year of the miles of pipelines that run through California.

“We inspect to make sure that (a utility’s) audit found what they were supposed to find, that they did what they were supposed to do,” Richard Clark, head of the consumer protection and safety division of the CPUC, recently told the state Legislature.

“We can’t run the company for them,” Clark said. “We can only make sure that they have the systems in place to ensure that safety is as high a priority that in can possibly be and the system is safe as it can be.”

The Chronicle reports that the federal government admonished California in 2006 about its inspections, warning that its efforts “reduces public safety.”

(© 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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