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Local Congresswoman, San Bruno Residents Give CPUC Earful

In receipt of a local congresswoman's letter with 14 specific suggestions related to natural gas pipeline safety, California regulators sat through a four-hour public hearing Tuesday night listening to residents recall in terrifying detail their experiences last Sept. 9 when a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) gas transmission pipeline erupted in an explosion and fire that killed eight people and devastated a quiet residential neighborhood in San Bruno, CA, south of San Francisco.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) made various suggestions that utilities and regulators divulge more about the gas pipelines traversing highly populated areas and take various steps to improve their operations and maintenance as established in federal standards but enforced by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The CPUC's lead commissioner on the San Bruno aftermath, Michel Florio, called Speier's suggestions a "substantive set of recommendations that we will take to heart as we move forward in this proceeding."

Tuesday night's session that included scores of local residents and others is the first of three such public comment sessions that the CPUC has scheduled, the other two being in mid-May (see Daily GPI, April 6).

Four of the five commissioners attended, and each reiterated a commitment to work to make sure a similar tragic incident does not happen again. CPUC President Michael Peevey did not attend.

Speakers were divided into three groups -- people directly affected on Sept. 9, elected officials and all other members of the general public. In some instances former CPUC staff engineers and other technical people familiar with the pipeline industry offered their dispassionate opinions. Residents directly affected described their homes being instantly incinerated, and in one case a man's eight-month pregnant wife was running for her life with three small children 6 and under.

Residents were critical of PG&E for both what they perceive as lax maintenance of the ruptured line in advance of the incident and the utility's alleged lack of full responsiveness since the tragedy. While also criticizing the CPUC oversight, many stressed the need to inform any residents within 1,000 feet of a gas transmission pipeline that it is present in their neighborhoods.

Jerry Hill, the state Assembly member representing a district that includes San Bruno, emphasized that he appreciated the CPUC holding the hearing in his local community but he has still introduced legislation in Sacramento to foster more transparency and accountability from both the utilities and the CPUC. Hill focused on past reports at the CPUC that in 2007 and 2009 the utility was authorized multi-million-dollar allocations to repair or replace segments on the its Line 132 that ruptured last September, but the work was never completed.

"The CPUC needs to do a better job of tracking how ratepayer dollars are actually spent," said Hill, alleging that PG&E has the "highest rates and worst safety record" of any utility in California and that its senior executives are from Wall Street and "have a Wall Street mentality where profit is king." He said the San Francisco-based combination utility's rates are 30% higher than the national average.

Hill criticized the proposed recent show-cause settlement between the CPUC Consumer Protection and Safety Division and PG&E, allowing the utility to potentially pay a fine of up to $6 million, but more likely only $3 million (see Daily GPI, April 1).

A staff member for Speier spoke, highlighting the substance of her April 1 letter to the CPUC that Florio referred to at the start of the public hearing. "When she signed the letter she told me it is 'inexcusable' that PG&E still doesn't know what is in the ground," the aide said, referring to the utility's ongoing dispute with the CPUC over the adequacy of its ongoing review of the pressure test history of more than 1,800 miles of transmission pipelines that pass through highly populated areas.

Speier's list of 14 proposals for the most part deal with this issue, requiring more disclosures, detailed data gathering and record keeping and installation of more automatic and remote control shutoff valves on the pipeline system.

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