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PG&E Defends Lax Inspection of Natural Gas Plant in Desert

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The controversial Topock Compressor Station | Photo via the California Division of Toxic Substances Control
The controversial Topock Compressor Station | Photo via the California Division of Toxic Substances Control

A year after a defective and never-inspected Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) gas line south of San Francisco exploded, killing eight people and injuring dozens more, that same utility asked the State of California on Monday to let another of its facilities slide without adequate testing.

At issue is PG&E's Topock Compressor Station on the banks of the Colorado River south of Needles, just across the water from the distinctive peaks that lent their name to the town. The compressor station takes in natural gas from three large pipelines that cross the river from Arizona, and pumps it into two distribution pipelines to be shipped north to PG&E's service area in Northern and Central California. About 40 percent of PG&E's usual supply of natural gas comes through Topock. But in February, after a pressure surge from Arizona pushed the facility at Topock past legal pressure levels -- and stung by months of public allegations of lax oversight of PG&E -- the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ordered PG&E to cut pressure at Topock by 20%, reducing PG&E's potential gas supply by almost 10 percent.

The CPUC ordered tests of the station's integrity, which a PG&E contractor performed this summer. But CPUC engineers reviewing the results were troubled to find that the contractor had used a low-pressure water test to check for leaks and weaknesses, and not the eight-hour "spike" test previously agreed to by the agency and PG&E. The engineers further found that the equipment with which tests were performed was substandard by PG&E's own standards.

Nonetheless, at a Monday hearing in San Francisco before an administrative law judge, PG&E asked the CPUC to allow the utility to return the Topock station to normal pressure levels, citing the risk of gas shortages during the coming winter months. A PG&E representative promised that the utility would be using the more rigorous "spike" test in the future, calling the departure from the agreement a "glitch." According to the San Francisco Chronicle, at least one of the two CPUC commissioners in attendance had had his concerns about Topock alleviated. "I would have much preferred this first one come in squeaky clean with no wrinkles," Commisioner Mike Florio told Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken. "But at this point, subject to further follow-up, I'm reasonably satisfied that these were fairly minor things, that these lines were tested at far above the pressure that they would be expected to encounter in normal operation."

The Topock compressor station is no stranger to controversy. Operating since the early 1950s just south of Interstate 40 where that highway crosses the Colorado, the Topock station has come under fire in the last decade over the same problem that bedeviled its sister facility in Hinkley, near Barstow. That problem is hexavalent chromium, a.k.a. chromium VI -- the carcinogenic toxic chemical whose effects on the health of the residents of Hinkley was dramatized in the film Erin Brockovich.

Division of Toxic Substances Control map of Topock's groundwater plume
Division of Toxic Substances Control map of Topock's groundwater plume

From the 1950s until 1985, PG&E used hexavalent chromium as an anti-corrosion agent in its compression stations; at Topock, wastewater containing chromium VI was dumped into evaporating ponds at the head of Bat Cave Wash, just north of the plant. Bat Cave Wash drains into the Colorado near Park Moabi, a popular San Bernardino County boat launch and campground. The result of the dumping: a groundwater plume of chromium VI now extends beneath the interstate and the campground either to, or underneath, the Colorado River, depending on whose estimates you're reading. An expensive remediation project is underway after years of legal wrangling, with its final Environmental Impact report released in January.

Some of that legal wrangling involved the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. The Topock Compressor Station sits atop an extensive series of geoglyphs familiarly known as the Topock Maze, a 15-acre network of nested furrows in the desert pavement. The site was once much larger; even before the Topock station was built, railroad and highway contruction had destroyed much of the site, including a large figure of a person holding a staff - or perhaps a snake - along the riverbank. The site's historic cultural significance is debated, but there's no disputing that the present day Mojave people hold it as sacred. In 2005, the Fort Mojave tribe filed a lawsuit against PG&E, demanding that the compression station be decommissioned and demolished, and the sacred site restored completely. A 2006 settlement of that lawsuit set much of the current remediation process in motion. Hundreds of wells will be drilled on both sides of the river, the groundwater tested, and -- if contaminants are found -- the water will be filtered and pumped uphill to flush out the aquifer.

The contamination poses a threat to more than cultural treasures. The groundwater plume extends perilously close to the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge's Topock Marsh, a critical stopover for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. The wetlands in the marsh constitute nearly half of the remaining "backwater" wetlands along the Colorado's course. Most of the river's previous shoreline habitat has been channelized or flooded beneath the river's many reservoirs.

As remediation work goes on, PG&E hopes to be allowed to resume normal operations at the plant. A CPUC decision is expected within two weeks. If the CPUC decides in the utility's favor -- as seems likely, given Mike Florio's statements to the press -- the Topock area will once again lose out in order to benefit a powerful corporation.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.

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