Five years have passed since a gas pipeline exploded beneath San Bruno, Calif., leveling neighborhoods in the San Francisco suburb, killing eight people, and injuring dozens of others, but a new state audit has found that the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) overseeing pipeline safety remains dangerously dysfunctional.
The state-commissioned audit, which the Crowe-Horwath consulting firm completed in February and released in March, found a systemic breakdown in performance by the five state-appointed utilities commissioners and the Public Utilities Commission as a whole.
Since the San Bruno catastrophe, the Public Utilities Commission’s performance has been marred by “frequent management changes, shifting priorities and reactive responses to internal and external recommendations,” the report said. These problems “led to a loss of focus, lack of clear direction, loss of trust in leadership, and unacceptable work backlogs.”
The audit also noted other ways the Commission failed. Since the 2010 pipeline explosion, it has taken Commission inspectors five times longer to prepare safety inspection reports for gas utilities. Instead of a 15-60 day turnaround time for the inspection reports as is the norm in other states, California regulators now average 8 months to complete their reports.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials who investigated the San Bruno explosion blamed the event on safety failures in both the pipeline owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), and the Commission.
Last week, the Commission voted 4-0 with one abstention to impose a record $1.6-billion fine on PG&E for safety violations that contributed to the San Bruno blast.
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane praised the giant penalty, but expressed disappointment that the Commission did not establish an independent panel to monitor PG&E’s safety program or reimburse the city more than $2 million it accrued in legal costs while participating in Commission hearings about the pipeline disaster. Mr. Ruane vowed to pursue the call for an independent safety monitor with the California legislature and other state and federal authorities.
San Bruno resident Susan Bullis, who lost three family members in the explosion, told the Los Angeles Times that she faults both PG&E and government oversight for the disaster.
“I blame PG&E for the death of my family,” she said. “And I blame the PUC, the watchdog agency responsible for monitoring PG&E.”