The California Public Utilities Commission has approved a record $38 million fine against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. relating to a series of safety violations that led up to a Christmas Eve 2008 explosion outside Sacramento that killed a homeowner. PG&E had already signed off on the fine – the largest ever imposed in California for gas safety violations – after an administrative law judge rejected a $26 million settlement as being too low. The penalty suggests that PG&E could face much costlier fines for any safety violations the state finds in connection with a Sept. 9, 2010, blast in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The Commission opened an investigation into that disaster last year, but at press time had not formally charged the company with wrongdoing.
The agency’s action resolved a case that the commission filed two years after the explosion in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County), well after federal investigators concluded that PG&E missteps were to blame. Before the unanimous vote to approve the penalty, a litany of violations leading up to the explosion were laid out. A distribution pipe exploded killing 72-year-old Wilbert Paana and injuring his daughter and granddaughter. Many of those previous violations were similar to factors in the San Bruno disaster. There were incidents involving the use of faulty pipe, flawed inspection procedures and long delays in emergency response.
The recent problem started when workers installed substandard pipe in a 2006 repair at the Paana home. PG&E failed to test the line at the time, and did not recheck it even after a similarly faulty repair was discovered nearby. A PG&E technician, who responded to reports of a gas smell in the neighborhood the day of the explosion, discovered the leak in front of the Paana house. But she found nobody home and apparently went to her vehicle to await help without posting a warning. Reportedly, the technician missed Paana and his family when they returned. PG&E took hours to send a properly trained and equipped crew to the site to fix the leak. The fatal explosion occurred just after that crew arrived.
State and federal investigators discovered that PG&E crews went to the Paana home several times in September 2006 to deal with a leaky plastic distribution pipe. The crew installed a new 6-inch piece of plastic pipe whose walls were too thin to qualify as standard ground pipe. The inferior piece came loose from a connector, causing the line to leak. The gas ignited when Mr. Paana’s granddaughter lit a cigarette in the home.
PG&E admitted to state investigators that crews and company supervisors had not followed proper procedures during pipe installations. The three hours it took to get a qualified crew to the neighborhood was found to be unreasonable. Since the two explosions – one in Rancho Cordova, and the other in San Bruno – safety procedures have been tightened. The company has also replaced its senior management since the San Bruno disaster.
The $38 million is not only the largest-ever fine against a California utility for gas-related violations, it is one of the few fines of this sort that the Public Utilities Commission has ever imposed. State regulators did not levy a single fine against PG&E for violations of natural gas safety laws during a ten-year period from 2000 to 2010 in which the utility was charged with more such infractions than the rest of the state’s major pipeline operators combined.
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