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California regulator slams two utilities with $13 million in fines for gas leaks and safety violations

California regulator slams two utilities with $13 million in fines for gas leaks and safety violations
A Southern California Edison employee repairs a power line in 2013. The utility this week was fined $8 million by the California Public Utilities Commission in connection to an incident that injured three Marines in Twentynine Palms in 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The California Public Utilities Commission issued $13 million in fines to two state utilities this week, saying safety violations and faulty equipment injured several people and caused at least one explosion.

The agency on Tuesday fined Southern California Edison $8 million for failing to maintain electrical equipment that injured three Marines in Twentynine Palms in 2015.

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The PUC also fined Pacific Gas and Electric Co. $5 million for violations that resulted in two natural gas leaks in 2016 and 2017 in Northern California that injured several employees.

In the Edison case, the three active-duty Marines were riding all-terrain vehicles in the desert when one ran into a fallen copper power line that was hanging less than 8 feet off the ground and suffered a laceration to his neck.

A comrade who rushed to his aid sustained third-degree burns to his left hand, left bicep and abdomen. The third Marine was also badly shocked by the line. The first Marine was taken by ambulance to a hospital. The other two were airlifted to hospitals, where they remained for several days, according to a 2015 letter from the utility to the PUC.

The commission initially fined Southern California Edison $300,000 in February in connection with the incident. The utility appealed that fine, and the agency reopened its investigation. During its second probe, the commission discovered that workers had failed for years to replace a nut that helped secure the overhead conductor. So the commission decided to increase its fine against the utility, according to an investigation report.

The agency says the utility discovered the missing nut in October 2011 and labeled it a low-priority fix.

“Southern California Edison failed to recognize the severity and hazard of this violation,” the report states. “Consequently, [the utility] labeled this hazardous and dangerous condition as priority level 3 and allowed the unsafe condition to remain uncorrected for several years.”

Southern California Edison contends the line fell after a storm damaged a cross arm that secured the wire. The utility said Wednesday it intends to appeal the fine.

“When Southern California Edison was notified of the equipment failure, it took immediate safety and corrective actions,” the utility said in a statement, adding that it “fully cooperated with the Safety and Enforcement Division in its investigation into the incident.”

In the Pacific Gas & Electric case, the first gas leak occurred in August 2016 when employees tried to repair a service valve that was stuck inside a home in Deer Park, a city in Napa County.

The commission says that when the employees tapped the valve with a hammer — an outdated technique — the valve came apart and gas escaped. The gas was ignited by a nearby water heater’s pilot light, burned the two workers and severely damaged the house, according to the citation.

The utility also is facing a $1-million citation for an incident in Yuba City, just north of Sacramento, in which a pipe was not constructed properly while it was being installed in 2017. A subsequent leak and explosion injured PG&E employees, according to the citation.

PG&E said Wednesday it is reviewing the fines.

“The safety of our customers, our workforce and the communities we serve remains our top priority,” the company said in a statement. “While we have made significant progress in our gas business over the last several years, nothing will distract us from our mission of becoming the safest, most reliable gas company in the nation. We continue to keep those impacted by these incidents in our thoughts and prayers.”

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Both PG&E and Southern California Edison have 30 days to pay the fines or file an appeal.

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