Frustrations mount towards PG&E at pipeline explosion hearing

While Allen B. was in the midst of a 65-day stay at a burn center, and his sister-in-law was just beginning what will be a much longer stay, his brother-in-law went to the Red Cross to apply for aid.

After spending about an hour and a half filling out paperwork, his brother-in-law walked away with a mere $100.

In hopes of learning why it has been difficult for his family and many others affected by September’s massive natural-gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno to obtain help, Allen B. — who declined to provide his full last name — attended a legislative hearing held in the city Tuesday.

He also wanted answers from PG&E and its regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, about the event that killed his mother-in-law and that will reshape his body and life forever.

Not all those answers came, leaving Allen B. and some of his neighbors frustrated, and lawmakers demanding more transparency.

More than 100 people attended the three-hour hearing, which was organized by state Assemblyman Jerry Hill and held in San Bruno’s senior center. Sparks started to fly fairly early.

CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon, for instance, drew an angry response when he said repairs had been scheduled on a section of pipe just a few miles from the explosion. The CPUC granted $5 million in ratepayer money to make that fix. But a few years later, PG&E asked for more money to make the same fix.

Clanon said PG&E had used that money for other, higher-priority projects.

“So where did the money go?” Hill said.

“The money went to other pipeline maintenance,” Clanon said. “PG&E didn’t pocket that money.”

“How do we know where that money went, and that it was a greater priority?” Hill said. Clearly angry audience members followed with a chorus of “How?”

Clanon eventually said he would have to get back to the legislators with the answer.

It was exchanges like that that frustrated Allen B., who sat in the fourth row of the audience with only the tips of his fingers and his face visible outside pale, skin-tight cloth bandages. 

He said Clanon had mentioned that a longtime CPUC employee happened to live right near the blast site. Allen B. said he found the comment tasteless in view of what he believed was a lack of accountability on the part of the agency.

“They were ducking everything they could,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, [someone who died] worked for us so we’re taking it seriously.’ If they’re taking it that seriously, why wouldn’t they answer our questions?”

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