California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has agreed to a record $38 million fine proposed by the state’s Public Utilities Commission after a couple of deadly gas explosions uncovered a series of dangerous safety violations and dismal safety procedures.
On Christmas Eve 2008, 72-year-old Rancho Cordova resident Wilbert Paana died after natural gas from a faulty pipe permeated his home and exploded. Mr. Paana’s daughter and granddaughter were home at the time and also injured in the blast.
State and federal investigators found the gas leak stemmed from a 2006 repair beneath Mr. Paana’s home. PG&E crews went to the residence several times in September 2006 to work on a leaking distribution pipe. Instead of properly fixing the leaky pipe, PG&E workers installed a 6-inch piece of plastic pipe that was too thin to act as an underground gas pipe. The substandard pipe came loose from the main pipe at the connector, causing a leak that caused a loud gas smell in the neighborhood.
A PG&E technician was dispatched to the house after the company received reports of the odor on the day of the explosion. However, nobody was at the Paana home when she arrived. The technician went back to her vehicle to wait without posting any warnings. The technician also failed to notice when the Paanas returned home, and work crews did not arrive on scene for hours. The house exploded just after the PG&E crew arrived at the house to work on the pipe.
“Through a whole sequence of muffed handovers, poor communication and human errors, a gas leak call that came in on Christmas Eve at 9:16 in the morning was not responded to properly over the next four hours, leading finally to the tragic explosion at 1:36 in the afternoon,” Commissioner Mark Ferron said.
PG&E’s poor safety performance continued even after the Rancho Cordova explosion until September 2009, when another gas leak set off massive explosions in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. The San Bruno explosion remains under investigation by state and federal authorities, but any findings that PG&E’s neglect for safety contributed to that blast could result in fines much higher than the ones levied against the company for the Rancho Cordova disaster.
Some critics point to PG&E’s disregard for safety and The California Public Utilities Commission’s lack of enforcement as yet another example of what can happen when corporate interests infiltrate public regulatory agencies.
The regulatory agency has long been accused of being PG&E’s loyal lapdog, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. From 2000 to 2010, the Public Utilities Commission never levied a fine against PG&E even though its safety record contained more critical violations than all of California’s other major utility companies combined.
The commission and PG&E agreed earlier to settle the Rancho Cordova explosion for $26 million, but that agreement was rejected by an administrative law judge for being too low.