Editorial: PUC should be liable for disastersBy Editorial Board
The catastrophic San Bruno gas line explosion is a reminder that PG&E's record for maintenance and safety has been less than stellar at times.
That's one reason why the state Public Utilities Commission should reject a bid by investor-owned utilities to increase ratepayers liability for damage caused by fires and other disasters.
It's not yet known if negligence played a role in the explosion that thundered through a neighborhood south of San Francisco, sparking a fire that killed at least four people and leveled about 40 homes. To its credit, PG&E is creating a $100 million relief fund for displaced residents. But company records reviewed by reporters since the Sept. 9 disaster raise questions about PG&E's training and inspection regimen for thousands of miles of natural gas lines that criss-cross the utility's service area.
Documents filed with the PUC acknowledge "unacceptably high" risks on some transmission lines. And in a PUC presentation last year, PG&E acknowledged widespread errors in its gas-leak detection program for the back end of its distribution system, the smaller lines that service individuals homes.
Staff Writer Sam Scott reported that the flaws first surfaced in PG&E's North Coast South Division, which is headquartered in Santa Rosa. An internal audit found "deficiencies" with the accuracy and honesty of inspections. Issues included falsification of records, ineffective training and insufficiently qualified employees. Similar problems turned up in 28 of 32 areas around the state.
PG&E's problems with maintenance and safety date back more than a decade.
Sonoma Valley residents remember the Cavedale Fire in 1996, which burned 2,100 acres and four buildings, causing $7 million in damage. Authorities blamed the fire on negligent tree-trimming. A year later, a Nevada County jury convicted PG&E of 740 misdemeanor counts in connection with a 1994 blaze that destroyed 12 homes. At about the same time, the PUC accused PG&E of pocketing $77.5 million collected from ratepayers that was supposed to be spent on tree trimming for fire prevention.
PG&E is insured against disasters, and it can seek rate increases if damage exceeds insurance. A proposal before the PUC would strip the commission of its authority to deny such a request. The plan was introduced by San Diego Gas & Electric, but it's backed by PG&E.
Approving that proposal would eliminate an incentive for utilities to carefully maintain transmission systems to prevent fires and explosions. Ratepayers should share that expense, but they shouldn't have to bear the costs of a catastrophic incident if it involves negligence by a utility. State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, plans legislation to shield ratepayers in cases of negligence. That makes better sense.
Copyright ©2010 Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Published 09/17/2010.