Gas pipeline and excavation safety are the topic of hearing

By J.W. Burch IV

With the death of a Bakersfield excavator in November and the death of a Fresno worker in April, the Senate Subcommittee on Gas, Electric and Transportation Safety, along with the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, held a hearing to examine gaps in gas pipeline and excavation safety Thursday in Bakersfield.

Representatives from PG&E, the California Public Utilities Council, the California Farm Bureau, Pavement Recycling Systems and Ghilotti Construction Company each addressed Subcommittee Chair Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo County/Santa Clara County, and Committee Chair Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.

The most recent fatal incident happened Nov. 13 when an employee of Big N Deep Agricultural Services struck a three-foot diameter PG&E pipeline, causing the gas to catch fire.

In April, one man died and another was injured after striking a 10-inch diameter pipeline in Fresno.

“Looking at the high number of incidents where no calls (to 811) were made at all … where is the enforcement?” said Peter Allen, the CPUC’s deputy director of utility safety and reliability. “There is no unified authority; it’s all patchwork.”

Asked if the CPUC was seeking to be the enforcing authority, Allen said the commission is not asking for that.

Allen said 55 percent of excavation damages between 2008 and 2015 were the result of calls not being made to 811, which notifies utility companies, such as PG&E, of a person or company’s intention to dig. The utility then locates and marks underground lines and pipes.

Of the remaining 45 percent, 70 percent were properly marked in a timely manner, 10 percent were mismarked, 9 percent were unmarked and 10 percent were not valid.

Joel Dickson, PG&E director of gas transmission and distribution compliance, questioned the validity of those numbers.

When Salas asked how such accidents happen, Allen said he thought it was due to multiple reasons.

“There is lack of knowledge, time pressure, money pressure, lack of communication and lack of enforcement,” Allen said.

Hill said three of the last four fatalities happened on Fridays and suggested workers may have been rushing to get home early, which could have caused them.

“Our biggest concern is the loss of life,” Pavement Recycling Systems Director of Sales and Marketing Jim O’Kane said. “We can replace equipment.”

Director of Safety and Claims for Ghilotti Construction Company Paul Evans agreed.

“The focus, from what I’ve seen in various committees, is not safety. It is liability and cost. It’s the fingerpointing aspect and it is an adversarily aspect. Who is going to pay for this and who is going to be responsible?” Evans said.

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