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After explosion, San Bruno wants big PG&E fine, tougher safety measures

After explosion, California city of San Bruno wants a big PG&E fine, tougher safety measures

City of San Bruno officials are supporting a proposed, record-high fine against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. but are complaining that the punishment for a fatal pipeline blast in 2010 fails to ensure the utility would act safely in the future.

Mayor Jim Ruane wants the state Public Utilities Commission to order more safety reforms, including the creation of an independent pipeline safety monitor. 

"We need something in place to ensure that it will not be business as usual just because fines were paid," he said.

Such an oversight agency would help restore the commission's "culture of safety and help the public regain confidence and trust in a corrupted system," he explained.

Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker is seeking $1.6 billion from PG&E. The PUC is set to take up the issue April 9.

Reports after the blast said the company's negligence contributed to a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in a San Bruno neighborhood. The bulk of the penalty would be used to upgrade PG&E's gas transmission system.

Ruane also is asking that the city be reimbursed by the commission for more than $2 million in legal fees for participating in the lengthy investigation of the disaster almost five years ago.

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FOR THE RECORD

March 31, 12:36 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane is asking that the city be reimbursed for more than $200,000 in legal fees. It is more than $2 million.
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Ruane outlined the city's position on the PG&E penalty at a news conference Tuesday morning on the steps of the headquarters of the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.

The city, the mayor said, will file a formal legal response on Wednesday to Picker's recommendation released March 13.

The combination of a big fine and heightened oversight "sends the right message that gross negligence, corruption and decisions that put profits over people will no longer be tolerated," Ruane said in a statement.

PG&E responded in a statement, saying it hopes that a San Bruno-related punishment would be "reasonable and proportionate" and take into consideration "the company's investments and actions to promote safety."

Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and a panel of pipeline safety experts revealed that both PG&E and the PUC failed to pay sufficient attention to the condition of the utility's aging pipeline infrastructure.

The line that cut through San Bruno and other cities south of San Francisco was installed more than half a century ago and had poor-quality welds.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against the San Francisco-based company, which is California's largest PUC-regulated utility.

At the same time, PG&E as well as Southern California Edison Co. have been caught up in a growing scandal at the PUC. Both the commission and the power companies are being targeted in criminal probes by the California attorney general's office and the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco.

The controversy resulted in PG&E firing three vice presidents for engaging in improper contacts with PUC staff. At the same time, former commission President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Mike Florio removed themselves from participating in disciplinary deliberations against PG&E.

San Bruno’s continuing calls for openness helped persuade a PUC judge to order PG&E to release more than 65,000 other emails between company and PUC officials.

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

10:33 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect statements made at a news conference Tuesday morning.

The original version of this article was published at 9 a.m.

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