San Bruno blast victims skeptical of oversightBy Demian Bulwa
The head of the California Public Utilities Commission defended the agency's regulation of natural gas pipelines Tuesday night while addressing an openly skeptical and at times irritated audience of Bay Area legislators and dozens of victims of the fatal Sept. 9 pipeline blast in San Bruno.
But PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon also acknowledged that more needed to be done to protect the public in the wake of a disaster that killed eight people and leveled 37 homes. His agency needs more inspectors, he said, and should do a better job of studying trends in pipeline accidents.
"This was not a line that was ignored. It was not a line where people were looking the other way," Clanon told about 200 people at the San Bruno Senior Center. But he added, "If we keep one thing in mind ... at the end of this, we have to have a better (regulatory) system."
The PUC has been criticized in the past three months for taking what critics call a hands-off approach with the pipeline operator, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., not closely watching the company's safety efforts and opting not to issue fines to the company for missteps.
Clanon said his agency did not have the resources to be the primary inspector of gas pipelines and had to rely on utilities like PG&E to do the job. He said fines might "discourage the utilities to come forward when they see a problem." He told the crowd, "A utility doesn't want their pipelines to be unsafe."
Many who listened to Clanon said they did not trust the PUC. They included Bill Magoolaghan, whose home was gutted in the blast. He now has a roof and exterior walls, but little else and is living with his family in a rental while working with his insurance company to figure out how to rebuild.
"They almost seem like they're in bed with PG&E," Magoolaghan said of the PUC. "It's like being best friends with your kid. That's not a good relationship. They're going to walk right over you."
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno and who hosted the forum, challenged Clanon, asking about PG&E's plans to replace a small portion of the same pipeline in South San Francisco in 2007 because it was at an "unacceptably high" risk of failure.
PG&E figured the $5 million project into customer rates, but then deferred the work until 2013. The company has said it did a reassessment after finding that the pipe was in better shape than it first believed.
Clanon said PG&E had the leeway to shift the order of projects, but acknowledged that the PUC does not have a process of making sure such work is done at all.
"This is a hole in the PUC's regulation process ... that we'll be moving to correct," Clanon said.
Several people in the crowd began asking how Clanon knew the $5 million was spent by PG&E and not pocketed. Clanon said, "We know that they spent it on pipelines" but did not elaborate.
Hill announced legislation intended to protect people from disasters like the one in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno.
His bill, introduced Monday on the first day of the state legislative session, would require utilities to pay safety fines out of shareholder profit, file annual reports on pipeline problems, share emergency response plans with the public as well as local and state authorities and give greater oversight to pipelines in earthquake-prone areas.
Like other bills that have been introduced since the San Bruno blast, Hill's legislation seeks to increase the use of automatic or remotely controlled shut-off valves in natural gas pipelines. It took nearly 90 minutes to manually turn off the gas that fed the San Bruno inferno.
The legislation also attempts to force utilities to upgrade pipelines more quickly, making it possible for them to be inspected from the inside with torpedo-like devices called "smart pigs." PG&E said the pipe segment that ruptured in San Bruno was inspected only from the outside, because it was too narrow and had too many turns to accommodate a smart pig.
Copyright ©2010 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 12/08/2010.