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PUC considers an investigation of PG&E's safety culture

PUC considers an investigation of PG&E's safety culture
Emergency crews inspect a San Bruno neighborhood on Sept. 10, 2010, as dozens of homes sit smoldering hours after a PG&E gas main exploded, killing eight people and destroying nearly 40 homes. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

State regulators want to investigate California's largest utility to determine whether culture and management contribute to safety problems, including the 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in the Bay Area city of San Bruno that killed eight people.

The California Public Utilities Commission said Monday that the agency is proposing a review of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s accountability structure, policies, practices and governance to see whether PG&E puts enough emphasis on safe operations. The PUC said it intends to make safety a key part of its decision-making, even after the commission already sent a strong message to the utility with a record $1.6-billion fine in April.

"PG&E has publicly stated that it is committed to improving the safety of its operations, but accidents and events affecting the safety of its customers, the general public, workers and agents, the utility system, and the environment have continued to occur," the commission noted in a statement. "As such, the CPUC is considering this investigation to determine whether PG&E's persistent issues are rooted in organizational culture and governance, and what PG&E Corp.'s role is in PG&E's safety culture."

PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said the utility looks forward "to sharing our commitment to safety and the concrete actions we have taken over the last several years to back it up."

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"We've made incredible progress toward our goal of becoming the safest and most reliable energy provider in America but we have more to do and we won't rest until it's done and done right," Stephens said in a statement.

The new investigation isn't intended to duplicate the review of the San Bruno pipeline explosion, which led the commission to impose the record fine against PG&E for violating state and federal natural gas pipeline standards. In that incident, a 1950s-era transmission line exploded in the Bay Area bedroom community, killing eight people, injuring 58 others, destroying 38 homes and damaging 70 more.

Monday's proposal, which the commission could vote on as early as Aug. 27, is the latest in a series of actions the regulators have undertaken to reform the troubled utility industry.

The PUC not only has targeted the utilities for reforms, commission President Michael Picker also has promised to make changes at his own agency. The PUC hired independent investigators to review the culture of the PUC after revelations of cozy relations between the utilities and the commission came to light.

Details of some of the relationships became the subject of a ruling by a state administrative law judge this month.

Judge Melanie Darling found that Southern California Edison had engaged in 10 unreported, secret communications with PUC staff, for which the utility faces $34 million in fines. The communications included talks with former PUC President Michael Peevey during at a swanky hotel in Warsaw, Poland.

On Monday, Picker also announced a proposal to make records at his agency more accessible to the public.

Picker's plan would authorize the agency's legal division to handle Public Records Act requests without further vote of the entire commission; allow records that are not submitted to the PUC as confidential to be released without a vote of the commissioners; and require records deemed as confidential or "privileged" to be indentified in detail.

Under current law, all information furnished by a public utility generally may only be made public by formal order of the PUC or a commissioner. Absent such a formal order, any PUC staff person who makes information in the commission's possession public can be criminally liable.

The proposed changes would apply to Public Records Act requests filed once the commission rules on the changes.

Comments from the public can be sent to the PUC's public advisor at 505 Van Ness Ave., Room 2103, San Francisco, CA 94102, or via email to public.advisor@cpuc.ca.gov.

Follow Ivan Penn on Twitter at @ivanlpenn

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