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PG&E electric business under scrutiny for possible records falsification

California may expand its investigation into whether Pacific Gas and Electric Co. falsified tens of thousands of gas safety records to include electric system-related records as well.

The safety division of the California Public Utilities Commission on March 22 formally requested to expand the safety and records falsification investigation, opened in December 2018, to include the electric side of the business. The division said it had "propounded discovery" that showed the scope of the problems was larger than the inquiry originally assumed.

To avoid damage to underground infrastructure such as pipelines, utilities — including Pacific Gas and Electric Co., or PG&E — have to timely respond to excavator requests to locate and mark underground systems. Without enough staff to keep up with gas pipeline locate requests and to avoid appearing to be falling behind, PG&E workers allegedly falsified records to make it seem like they were meeting requirements over 2012 to 2017.

After a March 6 deposition, the commission's safety division said it now believes that the locate-records falsification included underground electric distribution infrastructure. PG&E said March 22 that the company was reviewing the commission staff's motion to expand the investigation.

PG&E's gas line locators often would need trained personnel from the electric side of the business to mark the company's infrastructure if pipes and power lines were in the same area, Katherine Mack, expert auditor for PG&E and former superintendent for PG&E's locate and mark team, told the commission staff. However, PG&E's electric side would not provide personnel to accompany the gas workers in a timely fashion, Mack told the division.

This coordination and staffing situation was "a nightmare," Mack said during the deposition. Lacking qualified electric staff, gas workers would sometimes not follow the appropriate procedures, she testified.

"There was a lot of things they did, none of them which were probably the best thing," she said of PG&E gas workers trying to fulfill locate requests.

On at least one occasion when a qualified electric worker was needed but not on the job, an excavator struck PG&E infrastructure, the commission staff said in the March 22 filing. That dig-in was believed to have resulted in an injury, the staff wrote.

"In the case of that dig-in, the [locate] ticket was shown as complete and the mark was shown as done," the staff wrote.

The safety division staff is already pursuing more information from PG&E about how the utility's electric business handled locate requests. The CPUC has alleged that a high-pressure culture drove a lot of the records falsification in PG&E's locate department. Mack's testimony corroborated that assertion.

"You can't have any late tickets, you know. You're going to feel pressure from your supervisor, who felt pressure from their superintendent, who felt pressure from their director to make sure they had no late tickets," she said. "In locate and mark, we had pressure that I have never felt in any other place in PG&E at that time."

PG&E said in a March 22 emailed statement that the utility has already taken corrective actions to improve its processes, including engaging third-party consultants to review the locate and mark system, adding more personnel to do locate and mark work, redesigning training, and making personnel changes, among other things.

The utility's parent company, PG&E Corp., has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company is facing more than $30 billion in potential liabilities stemming from California's catastrophic wildfires.