“I know they are going do the best they can to pacify us, because that’s what big companies do when they make errors, they say everything they are supposed to, but they don’t do what they are supposed to.”
Chris Torres, San Bruno Blast Victim
This story by Marisa Lagos appeared April 6, 2011 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Residents of San Bruno demanded that concrete steps be taken to prevent another tragedy like September’s deadly natural gas pipeline explosion, telling members of the California Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday evening that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. should put public safety before profits.
Dozens of residents of areas surrounding the blast site, public officials and others packed the San Bruno Senior Center‘s meeting hall to weigh in on how the CPUC regulates gas pipeline safety and what needs to change. It was the first of three meetings the commission will hold around the state in the coming weeks.
Commissioner Mike Florio, who led the meeting, said commissioners were there to listen to public input as they undertake a “thorough review of how pipeline safety is regulated in California, and not only establish standards for California but for the whole country.”
Eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed when the PG&E line blew up in a San Bruno neighborhood Sept. 9. The blaze raged for nearly 90 minutes before the utility manually shut off the gas that fed the inferno.
Many speakers were as critical of the commission as they were of the utility. Bill Magoolaghan said his pregnant wife and three young children were sitting down to dinner when the explosion rocked the neighborhood, sending them fleeing.
“It shouldn’t have to take the deaths of eight people … it shouldn’t take the destruction of so many houses for the organization that oversees them to be fully invested in pipeline safety, but here we are,” he said. “My family has been displaced from our home, which was yellow-tagged, and 90 percent of our belongings were lost. My three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, are in weekly therapy to recover.”
Magoolaghan said homeowners and emergency responders should have known that the high-pressure line ran under the neighborhood and been informed about how it is inspected and maintained. He said individual PG&E and CPUC employees should be responsible for segments of pipeline, so the public will know who’s to blame if something goes wrong.
Size of fine criticized
He also criticized a recent agreement between the utility and state regulators that will allow PG&E to pay a $3 million fine for failing to provide key documents about pipelines; initially, the CPUC planned to fine the utility $1 million a day for every day past a March 15 deadline.
“The top two people at PG&E make enough money in a year to pay the entire fine proposed by the CPUC,” Magoolaghan said. “It needs to be significantly more substantial; the cost to PG&E needs to fit the cost of their negligence. Gas companies must invest in preventing disasters, not making profits.”
Magoolaghan wasn’t the only person affected by the blast to speak. Chris Torres said his mother, Elizabeth Torres, was “cremated alive” while his two sisters and brother “had all their flesh and hair” burned off as they fled the fire. His siblings are still recovering, he said.
Torres noted that PG&E had planned 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. The CPUC approved that spending, but the utility deferred the work and spent the money on other maintenance before coming back to the commission in 2009 to ask for authorization to spend more money for the same project. The company has said it did a reassessment after finding that the pipe was in better shape than it first believed.
“I would like to know, why do they get more money to do what they were already supposed to do?” Torres asked. “I know they are going do the best they can to pacify us, because that’s what big companies do when they make errors, they say everything they are supposed to, but they don’t do what they are supposed to.”
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, also criticized the fact that the repairs were deferred, and then approved again, without “any accounting of what happened the first time,” adding that PG&E earned more than $1 billion in profit last year.
Hill has authored legislation that would require utilities to pay safety fines out of shareholder profit, file annual reports on pipeline problems, share emergency response plans with the public and local and state authorities, and give greater oversight to pipelines in earthquake-prone areas.
The legislation also seeks to increase the use of automatic or remotely controlled shut-off valves in natural gas pipelines and to force utilities to upgrade pipelines more quickly.
“There has always been a tension between the price of safety and the cost to ratepayers,” Hill said. “Ratepayers have been paying for repairs, but those repairs have not always been done. …
“Company shareholders earned an 11.35 percent return last year – in comparison to the rest of the California economy, PG&E is doing very well indeed. Part of the problem is that many of the top executives are from Wall Street firms and have a Wall Street mentality. PG&E has the highest rates and worst safety record of any utility in California, and their rates are 30 percent higher than the national average.”