Pacific Gas & Electric

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Headquartered in San Francisco, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was founded in 1905. By 1992, the company owned operated nearly 180 electric generating units that included fossil-fueled, nuclear and hydroelectric plants. As the market was deregulated over the remainder of the decade, PG&E divested itself of most of its gas-fired plants. These had made up the bulk of its generating capacity.

Because of this divestment, PG&E was obliged to purchase electricity on the open market. These markets were manipulated by the infamous Texas-based corporation Enron, resulting in rolling blackouts and PG&E’s eventual bankruptcy in 2001. Due to a corporate bailout by the State of California, PG&E was able to emerge from bankruptcy in April of 2004.

Today, as its nearly 5 million customers in Northern and Central California pay above-market prices for their energy in order to cover the company’s debts, PG&E has become one of the most profitable companies on the Fortune 500 list; 2005 income totaled $4.5 billion, $917 million of which was profit.

Cover-ups

In 1987, it was discovered that PG&E had used a chemical known as hexavalent chromium (a pigment employed in photography, fireworks and artist’s colors) in order to prevent rust in its cooling towers near Hinkley, California. The chemical had contaminated the desert town’s water supply; PG&E assured the residents that the chemical was harmless. Eventually, a dramatic increase in debilitating illnesses led to a lawsuit, which was settled out-of-court in 1996 for $333 million. The case and the events were eventually dramatized in the film Erin Brockovich in 2000.

Asbestos

Asbestos has been used in a wide range of industrial applications wherever heat, electricity and flammable material were present. Boilers, turbines and generators were all insulated with asbestos-containing material (ACM), as well as pipe, pump and valve fittings and electrical conduits. This was usually sprayed on in the form of a product from the W.R. Grace Corporation that was marketed for many years as Monokote. Pipe gaskets were also frequently made from sheets of asbestos material.

As long as it was undisturbed, this asbestos was reasonably safe. Unfortunately, as these materials age, they become brittle and start to crumble. In this state, it is said to be friable, meaning that it essentially turns to dust – at which point it is possible to inhale, and can lead to a number of asbestos related illnesses, such as asbestosis and pleural plaques, as well as several deadly forms of asbestos cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Since the early 1990s, most power companies have engaged in asbestos abatement programs. In the meantime, it is important to wear a respirator and take the proper precautions when working in areas that are known to have an asbestos hazard; according to OSHA regulations, the company is required to provide protective gear and have established safety procedures.