San Bruno wake up call to CPUCBy Mark Toney
I just can't help crying every time I see Rene Morales on TV, at the CPUC, or in Sacramento, talking about the way her daughter Jessica died. Morales has been honoring Jessica's memory by speaking out about the 20-year olds' death in the gas pipeline explosion on September 9 that killed 7 others, injured many and destroyed scores of homes. Her bravery and commitment are awe-inspiring.
At TURN, we are committed to making sure that the engineering, staffing, managerial, and regulatory factors that contributed to the explosion are fully investigated so that such a tragedy never happens again. It is simply not enough to find out why the pipeline sprung a leak that ignited into a fireball. We want to know why inspections of that pipeline never identified the risk of a leak, and whether safety is the priority at PG&E.
Did PG&E have enough gas line technicians with proper training and experience, with adequate supervision and support, when the explosion took place? Why has PG&E failed to complete pipeline repairs that customers were charged for? And has PG&E redirected money from repairs to management bonuses, including $5 million to replace a section of Line 132 only 2.8 miles from the explosion?
TURN especially wants to know why the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to its oversight of PG&E. We have long worried that the CPUC has been unable to fulfill its duty to vigorously defend the public interest because it is not independent enough from the companies it regulates.
Why has the CPUC failed to levy a single fine against PG&E for violations of natural gas safety laws during the past six years, even though PG&E was the number one violator of federal safety laws? Why has the CPUC failed to fine PG&E, or even open a formal investigation, into the Rancho Cordova explosion that killed a customer in his home and injured three others two years ago? At that time, federal investigators blamed PG&E for failing to act on previous safety warnings, but it isn't clear whether their recommendations for changes to PG&E's gas safety practices were ever enforced.
On October 22, I led a national delegation of consumer advocates to the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, DC to deliver several thousand petitions signed by TURN members demanding a thorough investigation of all of the factors leading to the San Bruno explosion. Joining me in the meeting with NTSB Vice Chair Christopher Hart and Chief Pipeline Inspector Robert Trainor was Marti Thomas Doneghy of AARP, Olivia Wein of National Consumer Law Center, and Charlie Acquard of National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA).
The meeting was reassuring because Vice Chair Hart made it clear that the NTSB investigation would be broad, looking at staffing, management, maintenance, and regulatory oversight issues. As a federal agency, NTSB has the ability to conduct an unbiased investigation free from the influence of utility companies who exert undue influence at the state level upon the CPUC and the legislature. But it will fall largely to the CPUC to enforce its recommendations and sanction PG&E if the company is found to be at fault.
The deaths of Jessica Morales, former CPUC Jackie Greig and her daughter and 5 other people are surely a wake up call to PG&E and the CPUC that more must be done to put safety first. TURN will redouble our efforts as well.
Mark Toney is the Executive Director of TURN, The Utility Reform Network
Copyright ©2010 TURN. Published 12/10/2010.