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California Regulators, PG&E Challenged on San Bruno Documents

More than three years after ruptured natural gas pipeline killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, CA, officials again are challenging state regulators and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) by filing a lawsuit alleging they failed to produce public documents related to the tragedy.

San Bruno's lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleges "improper contact" and a "cozy relationship" between the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and PG&E. The city, about 10 miles south of San Francisco, asked the court to force the CPUC to fulfill four public record requests dating back more than 10 months.

All of the information being sought is related to the ongoing process by regulators to determine PG&E's penalties for the pipeline explosion and fire. A proposed decision is expected from a CPUC administrative law judge (ALJ).

A CPUC spokeswoman told NGI Wednesday that the commission is reviewing the lawsuit and will respond to the court as appropriate. “We have already replied to several extensive records requests by the city of San Bruno, and will continue to utilize our resources to evaluate and complete our responses,” she said.

“The CPUC remains focused on completing our investigations to assess penalties against PG&E for the pipeline rupture in San Bruno, and on improving the safety of not only natural gas pipelines, but of all the industries the CPUC regulates.”

San Bruno’s lawsuit is focused on an internal email from CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon to ALJs involved in the penalty proceeding. The city alleges CPUC violated its rules and "demonstrates improper communication and influence" between the regulatory panel's senior management and the judges. The communications allegedly concerned the proposed $2.25 billion penalty (see Daily GPI, June 7, 2013; May 29, 2013; May 7, 2013).

"We are concerned the leadership of the CPUC is in the pocket of the utility company it is supposed to regulate," said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane. "Our lawsuit calls for full transparency so that the people of San Bruno and citizens of California can be confident about the integrity of this long penalty process against PG&E."Ruane said the city's actions go beyond his jurisdiction and are related to protecting the safety of all Californians.

CPUC attorneys allegedly have declined to produce emails that San Bruno officials have sought, arguing that the communications are privileged. San Bruno officials say they have requested 17 requested 17 categories of documents related to communications among CPUC commissioners, CPUC safety division staff and PG&E since May 2013.

"To date, the CPUC has failed to provide documents that satisfy any of San Bruno's requests, and in some cases it has failed to even respond to the requests in violation of the Public Record Act's 10-day requirement," said a spokesperson for San  Bruno.

Last September, on the third anniversary of the pipeline rupture, PG&E said had settled substantially all of the legal claims and had taken a charge of about $110 million against 3Q2013 earnings as a result (see Daily GPI, Sept. 11, 2013). The San Francisco-based utility disclosed at the time that 160 lawsuits on behalf of about 500 plaintiffs had been filed against it.

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