Prosecutors to PG&E: We Are Not Amused

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

Back in 2010 a Pacific Gas &Electric gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California. The blast killed eight people, injured 66 and turned several blocks of the suburb just south of San Francisco into what looked like Baghdad after the shock-and-awe campaign. The disaster ignited a brief flurry of interest in pipeline safety but the national attention soon drifted on to other matters. San Bruno city officials, however, have kept the heat on the utility which provides gas and electricity to most of  Northern California.

On July 29 a bevy of prosecutors, including the U.S. Attorney, the California Attorney General, the San Mateo County DA, and the FBI announced an indictment charging PG&E with obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the blast as well as knowingly and willfully violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. According to the indictment, the utility provided the National Transportation Safety Board with a copy of its draft policy regarding pipeline threats, then withdrew it and replaced it with another policy claiming the first was a draft released in error. In fact, the indictment alleges, PG&E had been operating under the purportedly unapproved draft for years, meaning it did not properly assess the risks to pipelines running through urban and residential areas. According to the indictment, the utility ignored or failed to investigate threats to its gas pipelines, kept inaccurate and incomplete records, did not investigate the seriousness of threats to pipelines when they were identified, and failed to assess the threats posed by over-pressurized pipelines.

All in all it’s not a pretty bill of goods, and San Bruno is spitting mad. And the city’s anger isn’t just directed at PG&E. According to city officials, PG&E essentially colluded with state regulators. The mayor is accusing the  chairman the California Public Utilities Commission of receiving “confidential, non-public information from PG&E regarding its internal deliberations and financial conditions outside of the CPUC public hearing process” and demanded his immediate removal from proceedings related to the blast. The city accuses PUC and PG&E officials of being in regular email contact despite commission rules forbidding private conversations between parties to official actions and regulators.

Pipeline safety generally has an enforcement problem. Congress has consistently starved the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration of adequate funding. According to Rep. Jackie Speier whose district includes San Bruno, “The industry has a lock on PHMSA. It has a lock on Congress. And the public’s interest gets dramatically watered down.” In fact, the head of the PHMSA, Jeffrey Wiese, offered up an unusually frank confession about the state of his agency in a speech last fall. According to Wiese, the regulatory process is “kind of dying.”

Perhaps the grand jury that returned the indictment against PG&E can stave off the demise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: