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Pipeline safety rules strengthened in aftermath of deadly PG&E blast
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California regulators have new powers to ensure gas utilities follow safe practices, thanks to a suite of bills that have just been signed into law, a state assemblyman said Monday.

The bills — signed by Gov. Jerry Brown over the weekend — come more than two years after the deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood charred in the Sept. 9, 2010, blast, told The Associated Press on Monday morning that the legislation will strengthen pipeline oversight to prevent a similar tragedy. He later held a news conference outside the California Public Utilities Commission as the first day of hearings for the commission's investigation into the fatal San Bruno blast began.

"This puts us ahead of many other states in pipeline safety in requiring the commission to regulate utilities more strictly," Hill said in an interview. "This could save lives in the future."

One of the three bills Hill sponsored will require the commission to adopt gas pipeline safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board, if they are appropriate to California utilities.

Had that law been in place before the San Bruno explosion, the commission would have been obliged to enforce dozens of recommendations made by federal safety investigators for utilities to outfit their pipelines with remotely operated or automatic shut-off valves, devices that halt the gas flow within minutes of a rupture.

An Associated Press investigation last year found that the pipeline's owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., agreed as far back as 1997 that remotely operated valves did a better job of protecting public safety than manual ones. But it opted against using them widely across its network of high-pressure transmission lines, saying they weren't necessary or required.

When the gas flow finally stopped 89 minutes after the explosion in San Bruno, eight people had been killed, dozens injured and 38 homes destroyed.

"Historically those recommendations have just been ignored by the CPUC and by our utilities," Hill said in an interview. "This now puts California in the forefront."

The commission has yet to fine Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for what federal regulators have called a litany of failures leading up to the explosion.

Another new law will require the commission to adopt pipeline safety performance metrics, and allow regulators to fine the state's gas utilities if they fail to meet them.

The third measure signed by the governor over the weekend is aimed at preventing utilities from cutting spending on operations and maintenance to award its executives bonuses.