PG&E Pays the Price – California Doesn’t

San Bruno ExplosionEveryone who’s read Crazifornia knows it starts in San Bruno:

Near San Francisco, there’s a California neighborhood in a California town that’s named after an 11th Century monk who was known for the clarity of his teaching.  That’s fitting, because we can learn a lot about how the once-golden state of California became a permanent state of dysfunction called Crazifornia if we look at what happened in that town, San Bruno, on September 9, 2010.

What happened in San Bruno, of course, was a massive explosion of a PG&E pipeline:

It was late afternoon, and the big Orange California sun was dropping toward Sweeney Ridge just east of the blue-collar neighborhood. Families were preparing dinner and catching up on the day’s activities when, at 6:11 p.m., a section of pipe in a 30-inch-diameter intrastate natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric ruptured near the corner of Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue, at the entry to the neighborhood.

A half-million cubic feet of natural gas gushed out of the pipeline in the first minute after the rupture, and for every one of the 94 additional minutes that passed before PG&E finally was able to shut down the flow of natural gas.  Almost instantly after the first molecules of the highly explosive gas escaped the pipeline’s confines, something ignited it – quite possibly a gas stove heating up dinner in one of the nearby homes.

The resulting explosion and inferno obliterated that home and 37 others and killed eight people.  It created a crater, now filled in, that was big enough to swallow any of the houses destroyed in the explosion.  The twisted remains of the ruptured section of pipe, weighing 3,000 pounds and about as long as three elephants lined up nose-to-tail, lay smoking where the explosion hurled it, 100 feet away.

Now, almost three years later, staffers at the California Public Utilities Commission have proposed a punishment for PG&E, as reported in the LA Times:

California regulators have proposed that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pay a record $2.25-billion penalty for its role in causing a fatal 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, a San Francisco suburb.

The total includes a $300-million fine to be paid to the California treasury and $1.95 billion for safety upgrades to the company’s gas distribution system. About $1.5 billion would be paid by shareholders and the balance would be returned as a credit to PG&E for already completed distribution system repairs and safeguards.

The five appointed – not elected – board members of the Public Utilities Commission will decide on the staff proposal this Fall, about the time the explosion’s third anniversary rolls around.

Missing from the discussion is the huge penalty the State of California itself ought to pay, for its own actions are indeed the root cause of the catastrophe, as I wrote in Crazifornia:

The pipeline accident report of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),[i] which regulates pipelines and investigates their explosions, found 28 contributing factors to the explosion, but two stand out.  The first is that the section of pipe that ruptured had defects so pronounced they should have been visible to the PG&E work crews and state inspectors when the pipe was installed in 1954.  The second is that the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided against all logic in 1961 that its newly adopted pipeline inspection standards would not be applied to pipelines that were in place prior to that year. The pre-1961 pipelines would be grandfathered, not subject to the new standards.

If not for the PUC’s decision, the pipeline would have undergone hydrostatic pressure tests that very likely would have revealed the defect under San Bruno.  “There is no safety justification for the grandfather clause exempting pre-1970 pipelines from the requirement for post-construction hydrostatic pressure testing,” the NTSB report found.

California has let itself off the hook – just as it always lets itself off the hook for all the mistakes, missteps and crazily expensive and utterly useless regulatory crusades it routinely subjects its citizens to.
What a shame.


[i] “Pipeline Accident Report: San Bruno, CA, Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion and Fire, September 9, 2010,” National Transportation Safety Board, http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/2011/san_bruno_ca/index.html

 

 

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