San Bruno aftermath: PG&E fined $25.6 million for record-keeping violations

PG&E fined for record-keeping violations

Burned out automobiles caused by the PG&E gas explosion on Glenview Drive, in San Bruno, Calif., on September 11, 2010. (LiPo Ching/Mercury News)

SAN FRANCISCO — In a fresh reminder of the missteps that led to the San Bruno explosion, state regulators on Thursday slapped PG&E with a $25.6 million fine for an array of record-keeping violations.

The state Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to punish the utility for failing to keep accurate records on its aging natural gas pipeline system.

The decision was based on a proposal issued by PUC Administrative Law Judge Maribeth Bushey, who in a June filing noted that PG&E has been guilty of widespread deficiencies in its record keeping.

“These inaccurate records were relied on for locating and marking underground facilities in anticipation of excavation,” Bushey wrote in the proposed ruling. “The inaccurately mapped and consequently inaccurately marked facilities led to excavators damaging the distribution system in several instances.”

Six incidents, from September 2010 to March 2014, caught the PUC’s attention, prompting regulators to open a formal probe into PG&E’s record keeping.

Two of the incidents occurred in Milpitas, with one each taking place in Castro Valley, Morgan Hill, Mountain View and Carmel.

Most of the incidents resulted in leaks and service interruptions, and, in one instance, an evacuation. In the Carmel incident, natural gas leaked into an empty home that eventually blew up.

“Luckily, the house was unoccupied at the time,” Carmel Vice Mayor Carrie Theis said. “We have huge concerns about PG&E’s record keeping and their explanation about why this happened.”

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that PG&E’s ecord keeping played a major role in the 2010 San Bruno explosion, in which eight people died and dozens of homes were destroyed. The NTSB said inadequate pipeline maintenance by PG&E and lazy oversight by the PUC were other key factors in the explosion.

“It’s very disturbing that PG&E continues to have a pattern of record-keeping violations, and being unable to have accurate records for pipeline safety,” said Mark Toney, executive director with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group.

The PUC in April 2015 imposed a $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E for causing the San Bruno disaster, the largest financial punishment ever levied on an American utility.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees and the communities we serve,” PG&E spokesman Nick Stimmel said Thursday in a prepared release. “We learned a great deal through this process and believe it is in the best interest of our company and the public to move forward cooperatively to address these findings.”

On Aug. 9, a federal jury found PG&E guilty of six felony charges, including five violations of U.S. pipeline safety rules before the San Bruno blast and one count of obstructing the government’s investigation of the catastrophe.

PUC officials warned that PG&E’s record-keeping woes may be far from over.

“I fear we will continue to see things like this crop up,” PUC Commissioner Michael Florio said. “This problem with lost records is a very serious one.”

If PG&E can’t fix the blunders in its natural gas operations, the remedy may need to be tighter controls on the utility, Toney said.

“Maybe the PUC should look into bringing in another company to run the PG&E pipeline system,” Toney said. “Either bring in independent oversight for the gas system, or PG&E should consider bidding out the gas franchise.”