Playing Russian Roulette With Our Neighborhoods

Remember this phrase – Condition-Based Maintenance.  CBM.   Crash and Burn Maintenance.  CBM.  

The San Bruno explosion should be a wake up call.  As the inevitable regulatory reviews, recriminations and revisions of history play out in the wake of San Bruno, it is important to keep CBM in mind because it is one of the most nefarious and dangerous lingering effects of the deregulation mania that swept over California and the nation in the last 15 years.  It must be eliminated from utility practice.  Let me explain.

Utility systems provide essential services whose loss even for a moment can be devastating in a very short time. – in the  case of manufacturing processes a matter of milliseconds.  For this reason operation and maintenance of these systems should be rigorously scrutinized and high standards enforced.  This is especially true of gas pipeline systems, because the substance they carry, methane gas under relatively high pressures, can be highly explosive and dangerous.

For decades standard practice in the utility industry was to perform Preventive Maintenance (PM) at relatively short intervals, with regular inspections between preventive maintenance applications.  This provided a high degree of assurance that equipment or material failures would not occur.

Deregulation placed a premium on cost cutting, job cutting and corner cutting, in the name of maximizing profits.  Preventive maintenance was one of the casualties.  It was replaced by CBM, Condition-Based Maintenance.   CBM is a concept that substitutes inspection intervals for maintenance intervals, with actual maintenance occurring only as needed based on the observed condition of the equipment or system.  If system or equipment is close to failure, maintenance or replacement is supposed to be performed “just in time.”  However, as San Bruno demonstrated, the inspections can miss something and place our communities literally at risk of blowing up.  There is no place for CBM in the utility infrastructure for delivering essential services and explosive substances.

The risk of catastrophe is enhanced in California because even though improved inspections can identify potentially hazardous conditions that warrant repair or replacement, the actual maintenance and capital spending by the utilities is set at a level that deliberately cuts safety margins to the edge of failure.  For example, gas utilities in California are currently operating pipes and equipment far beyond their designed life, with schedules for replacement as much as seven years into the future.

The PG&E San Bruno explosion has sparked a renewed sense of urgency in addressing infrastructure safety issues.  There are federal initiatives to improve pipeline safety that pre-dated San Bruno; there are state and federal investigations and there is sure to be a flurry of legislative proposals in the wake of the disaster that focus on improved inspections.  But until the philosophy of utility deregulation and the practice of CBM – push equipment and systems to the brink of failure in the name of cost-cutting – are eliminated, we have to ask: Whose neighborhood will blow up next?  Spin the chamber and pull the trigger.

Carl Wood is the Democratic candidate for the 65th State Assembly district (Riverside and San Bernardino Counties). Wood is a member of the Utility Workers Union of America and former Public Utilities Commissioner.  He has worked as a power plant maintenance electrician.

One thought on “Playing Russian Roulette With Our Neighborhoods”

Comments are closed.