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Lax enforcement allows PG&E to put public at risk

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The 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion and fire that killed eight people was caused by PG&E’s long history of mismanaging its gas system and the lax policing of the utility by the California Public Utilities Commission. This was the verdict of the National Transportation Safety Board after a lengthy investigation, and it is not a situation that California can allow to continue.

State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, whose Peninsula district includes the Crestmoor neighborhood where the disaster occurred, has reintroduced three pieces of legislation in the latest attempt to place a level of safety accountability upon utility companies and the CPUC.

The most significant, AB 1456, would require the CPUC to take safety performance into consideration as part of approving consumer gas rates for PG&E and other utility operators.

The CPUC is empowered to set the amount that PG&E can charge its ratepayers. Until now, it has admittedly not connected the safety record of a utility with consumer rates. In addition, Hill’s trio of bills would require the CPUC to organize a protection system for whistle-blowers who work at utility companies.

The legislation would also require the CPUC to enforce pipeline safety recommendations from the NTSB “in a timely manner” or issue written explanations of why it refused to do so. The safety board produced about a dozen specific recommendations that could prevent repeats of the San Bruno disaster.

An earlier version of Hill’s legislation was defeated last year, but the San Mateo assemblyman pledges to push the legislation every year “until it is passed and signed by the governor.” The bills would tie in with recently enacted state laws mandating that pipeline operators must pressure-test their gas lines, install emergency automatic shutoff valves and clarify their emergency response measures.

Some independent watchdog organizations have expressed wariness about the proposed legislation, pointing out that simply issuing more regulations is pointless unless the CPUC actually enforces them.

As The San Francisco Examiner has reported in the past, there is a revolving door between utility executives and CPUC officials in key positions that enforce safety and rates. And Hill concurred that the CPUC had “routinely ignored” prior safety board recommendations, including installation of automatic shutoff valves on gas pipelines and replacement of suspect plastic Aldyl-A pipe implicated in two smaller PG&E explosions last year.

The best way to make utilities more accountable is to threaten their bottom line. The CPUC has the power to accept or reject rate increases, and it can use this power to protect the safety of Californians. With the horrific job the CPUC has done monitoring pipelines for safety, it now owes it to the multitudes of families that have been affected by San Bruno and other explosions to hold utilities financially responsible by making rates dependent on the proven track records of these utilities.

Top CPUC officials should be replaced if they fail to implement the NTSB recommendations, as a law should not be required for an oversight agency to do its job of protecting the public from harm.