San Bruno blast hearings require transparency

The hearings and court cases stemming from the 2010 explosion of a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno have taken a welcome turn toward openness — a sign that the victims of the blast could receive justice after all.

On the evening of Sept. 9, 2010, a natural-gas transmission pipeline owned and operated by PG&E exploded, and the blast and subsequent conflagration swept through the Crestmoor neighborhood, killing eight people and destroying dozens of homes.

The blue-ribbon task force that investigated the blast faulted the utility. Now, several hearings into possible fines against PG&E are ongoing before the California Public Utilities Commission — the regulatory body that oversees such utilities. And victims and their families are suing PG&E in a separate court case for punitive damages and compensation for their houses and the lives lost.

PG&E, which has taken responsibility for the blast, claimed in court filings that the explosion was an accident and not due to its mismanagement. In doing so, the utility was trying to avoid paying punitive damages. A San Mateo Superior Court judge did not buy the argument, and  he issued a ruling Tuesday stating that the civil case can proceed to a jury trial.

This is the latest incident in which PG&E has unsuccessfully attempted to either dismiss a hearing or mediation, or move them out of the spotlight. First, the CPUC’s Consumer Protection Safety Division, in coordination with PG&E, asked judges to halt public hearings into possible fines against the utility. Then, a few days later, the CPUC unilaterally announced that it had named former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell as a mediator between the parties involved in talks about possible penalties.

After concerns were raised about the secret nomination and the ties that Mitchell’s law firm has to other utilities, the former senator rightly stepped down as the mediator.

The best next step would be for the commission and PG&E to realize that complete openness is the proper channel for resolution of this incident. Consequently, they should move the hearings about possible fines back into the public realm. If a mediator is needed for the penalty talks, there should be a process in which all of the stakeholders are involved in vetting and selecting that person.

For the civil trial, it is unclear if the people who were affected by the San Bruno blast should be awarded punitive damages, and if so, how much they should receive. But PG&E is not the party that should decide this. It is appropriate that a jury ultimately judge the merits of this case.

In the meantime, PG&E should step out of the way of the rest of the process. Of course, the utility should have a voice in all the proceedings related to the blast. But its voice should be equal to those of the victims and the other stakeholders in these cases. The judge did what was right in the civil case. Now we hope the CPUC will stand up and do what is right as well.

Bay Area NewsPeninsulaPG&ESan BrunoSan Bruno blast

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