The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced Friday it will evaluate charges of alleged unlawful conduct that have been lodged against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) by CPUC investigators regarding the Dec. 24, 2008 natural gas pipeline explosion in Rancho Cordova, CA, east of Sacramento. It could lead to fines of up to $20,000 per day per violation against the San Francisco-based combination utility.

The five-member CPUC voted to open a formal investigation during which an administrative law judge (ALJ) will hear testimony related to the explosion from the regulatory panel's safety investigators, PG&E and others. Eventually, based on the record created, the ALJ will prepare a proposed decision that could include fines and penalties against the utility, a CPUC spokesperson said.

PG&E was ordered to file a motion with the regulators by Dec. 17, giving the CPUC investigators until Dec. 23 to reply. A pre-hearing conference will then be set by the ALJ.

CPUC President Michael Peevey said the regulators' action amounted to "an indictment to give PG&E its day in court, and for the CPUC to consider fines if unlawful behavior is proven."

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completed its investigation of the pipeline incident and published its report last May. This CPUC action comes as federal and state investigations continue in the wake of another, more devastating pipeline rupture Sept. 9 in San Bruno that killed eight people and devastated a quiet residential neighborhood about 10 miles south of San Francisco (see Daily GPI, Sept. 27).

"As with our ongoing examination of the San Bruno explosion, this phase of our investigation of the terrible December 2008 incident in Rancho Cordova will ascertain whether PG&E violated rules and regulations, and its management policies and practices contributed to violations of law and the loss of life," said CPUC President Michael Peevey.

CPUC safety division investigators recommended that the CPUC consider fines against PG&E in response to four specific allegations it makes against the utility:

The CPUC Consumer Protection and Safety Division investigated the 2008 explosion with the NTSB, and both parties have completed their investigations. The CPUC safety division has concluded the incident was caused by gas leaking from a September 2006 pipe repair done by the utility. It also concluded that the repair work did not meet federal an d state requirements for gas pipelines, and in this case the pipe separated from a metal coupling and leaked.

"The leaking gas migrated from the main pipeline into a house in Rancho Cordova, which ignited and caused an explosion and fire that destroyed one home, severely damaged two others and killed one person and injured five more," the CPUC spokesperson said.

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