PG&E’s deadly failures

Pub date September 14, 2010

EDITORIAL In 1994, a fire raged through the tiny community of Rough and Ready in Nevada County. The inferno destroyed a dozen homes and caused $2 million in damage. The cause: tree limbs that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. should have trimmed brushed against high-voltage power lines.

A furious local district attorney filed criminal charges — and in a dramatic trial, evidence emerged that PG&E had intentionally taken $80 million in ratepayer money designated for tree trimming and diverted it into executive salaries and profits.

After a natural gas line that was installed in 1948 burst last week in San Bruno, killing five and devastating a community, local and state officials should be asking if the company is still taking money that should be spent upgrading and maintaining its system and spending it elsewhere.

There’s certainly evidence that the company’s safety record is shoddy. In 2003, a fire at a Mission District substation caused 100,000 people to lose power — and the CPUC chided PG&E for failing to follow its own rules and for general procedural laziness. In 2005, an underground explosion at Kearny and Post streets caused a fire that seriously injured a pedestrian on the sidewalk above. In June 2009, a fire at a PG&E vault at O’Farrell and Polk streets caused an explosion that roared up through a manhole and cut power to 8,600 customers.

In San Bruno, neighbors reported smelling gas in the days before the explosion. PG&E trucks had come to the scene and left without repairing the problem.

In the Rough and Ready fire, PG&E was found guilty of criminal negligence — and the San Mateo County D.A., James P. Fox, should immediately start looking into the possibility of filing charges against the company. In the meantime, San Francisco ought to be taking a long, hard look at the state of the private utility’s infrastructure in the city — and how much of it is vulnerable to deadly failure.

The mayor, the supervisors, and the city attorney should demand that PG&E produce a map of every gas line, power line, transformer, and substation in the city — with details about age, condition, and maintenance history. The city should hire an independent auditor to investigate how much of what PG&E has under and above the city streets is old, crumbing, poorly maintained, and likely to fail. The results should be made public — and the city should take whatever legal action is necessary to ensure that the company’s equipment doesn’t pose an imminent risk to local residents and businesses.

State Sen. Mark Leno is calling for a hearing, and PG&E officials should be forced to discuss, in public, how this disaster was allowed to happen. City officials, and the local Legislative delegation, should also be pushing the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate how PG&E has been spending the money it collects from ratepayers for maintenance and system upgrades. It’s clear that company profits were healthy enough for PG&E to spend $46 million on a failed ballot initiative that would have blocked public power in the state; why wasn’t that money used to replace the ancient natural gas pipes in San Bruno? Where else is the company skimping on facilities? How much of the company’s system needs immediate upgrades, and what’s PG&E’s budget and schedule for that work?

There’s a larger point here: none of the public power systems in Northern California have had this type of accident. None of the publicly run utilities have been found guilty of diverting maintenance money to executive salaries and profits. San Francisco’s first modest moves toward public power will come with the establishment of a community choice aggregation system — but that system will still rely on PG&E’s grid. The sooner the city can move to get rid of that private monopoly and build its own power system, block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood if necessary, the less likely it will be that a San Bruno-type catastrophe will happen here.