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CPUC can’t be trusted to investigate PG&E explosion in San Bruno

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POSTED September 11, 2010 3:39 a.m.
The California Public Utilities Commission should not investigate PG&E for the killing of four people, maiming countless others and destroying 37 homes in San Bruno.

They can’t be trusted.

If you doubt that, reference the scathing National Transportation Safety Board report in an eerily similar natural gas line explosion on Christmas Eve 2008 that killed a Rancho Cordova man. The NTSB ripped PG&E apart for its lackluster maintenance and protocols that essentially gave the hardworking front-line PG&E employees a next to impossible task to stay on top of system needs.

There wasn’t so much as a whimper out of the CPUC after that. True, there was the usual chest beating from the CPUC media office about how they were going to keep PG&E on their toes. But as San Bruno has now tragically proven PG&E apparently doesn’t put much stock in customer concerns about maintenance issues nor does the CPUC want to use its regulatory teeth except for show.

It’s convenient, in a way, that the CPUC’s general counsel Frank R. Lindh labored just a few years ago as general counsel for - surprise, surprise, - PG&E.

The CPUC also routinely approves massive rate increases for PG&E that are often based on the San Francisco-based utility’s claim they will use the money to do routine maintenance and then siphon the funds collected from ratepayers for other purposes. One recent rate increase application the CPUC approved included money to replace 40,000 aging power poles. An audit done several years later showed that PG&E only replaced 4,000 poles. How it came up was PG&E had the gal to ask for another rate increase to replace the poles that weren’t replaced with the first rate increase.

Is there a pattern here?

The corporate honchos cannot place this at the feet of PG&E line workers who they keep squeezing so they can improve short-term profits.

And it isn’t the case of asking PG&E to “overfund” work crews. Consider what happened during the boom days earlier in this decade. It would take upwards of a year to get PG&E work crews to various projects because corporate PG&E had cut staffing so thin. If you doubt that ask Jerry DeGroot who was delayed for almost a year trying to open his retail complex in the 200 block of North Main Street or cities such as Manteca that often have seen projects delayed for months because PG&E couldn’t meet promised deadlines to relocate power poles. This work, by the way, is not funded by ratepayers but by those requesting the work.

PG&E has a history of responding to legitimate concerns about safety by doing what it does best - threatening to sue.

South San Joaquin Irrigation District found this out when PG&E tried to push a 24-inch natural gas pipeline through district easements earlier this year without going through the same environmental review process that everyone has to go through.

PG&E’s initial response on the corporate level wasn’t to cooperate or address concerns but it was to threaten to sue if they weren’t allowed to proceed immediately. SSJID did not back down and got the assurances - and specifications - they needed to make sure district water was save from being polluted and that their constituents would be safe.

San Bruno is a classic case as to why some argue we don’t have enough regulations on certain types of businesses in California. Of course, PG&E is not a true “free market” business. They are protected and propped up by guaranteed rates of return by the CPUC. It is not like Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target going after business head-to-head. PG&E operates as a quasi-government agency that is able to funnel big bonus checks to its top corporate leadership even within months of teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and sending rates sky high while rank-and-file workers see their paychecks shrink.

In other words, they were even ahead of Wall Street in the audacity game of almost driving a company into ruins and then rewarding the executives who were at the helm.

San Bruno, unfortunately, is the end result of the game PG&E is playing and the lapdog known at the CPUC that serves them and not the ratepayers who are at PG&E’s mercy.
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