San Bruno Blast: Probe into PUC Role Still Unresolved

Six years after the devastating San Bruno natural gas pipeline blast led to the deaths of eight people, the California Public Utilities Commission has not been held accountable for what elected officials say was its role in the tragedy.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, Assemblymember Kevin Mullin and San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane are trying to change that. They recently sent a letter to urge state attorney general nominee Xavier Berea to ramp up a continuing investigation into corruption at the PUC.

Still unresolved is a state investigation opened in 2014 by Attorney General Kamala Harris. She launched the probe after emails were made public revealing that Peevey had private communications with PG&E officials.

They believe the PUC was too lax in its oversight of Pacific Gas & Electric and forgot its mission to protect consumers. They specifically blame former longtime PUC president Michael Peevey, who resigned in 2014.

“Based on the evidence as we know it from the press and everything, Michael Peevey should be sharing a cell with state Sen. Leland Yee in Texas because both committed the same crimes- trading government favors for campaign contributions,” said Hill, D-San Mateo.

There was no immediate comment from Peevey, the PUC and PG&E.

In September 2010, a 30-inch natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric exploded and set fire to the Crestmoor residential neighborhood. In addition to the eight people killed, 66 were injured and 38 homes were destroyed. Investigators later found that there had been numerous defective welds in the pipeline.

This summer, a federal court jury found PG&E guilty of violating pipeline safety laws both before and after the disaster and of obstructing the federal investigation of the blast. The maximum fine for the convictions is $3 million. The PUC previously fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the explosion. Prosecutors later reduced the fines.

Kristin Ford, deputy communications director at the attorney general’s office, said she couldn’t comment on “ongoing investigations.”

Still unresolved is a state investigation opened in 2014 by Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has since been elected to the U.S. Senate. She launched the investigation after emails were made public revealing that Peevey had private communications with PG&E officials after the San Bruno explosion, including a long private meeting with one executive at the utility over wine.

According to Hill, the emails show that Peevey made quid-pro-quo deals with utility executives to approve rate increases in exchange for the company’s contributions to favorite nonprofits and its financial support in opposition of a ballot measure. A story on the emails, including PG&E’s response, can be seen here.

State investigators served search warrants on the PUC headquarters in San Francisco and Peevey’s home in Southern California, taking away computers and documents.

But two years later, nothing has come of the inquiry with no charges filed and no explanation as to why the probe is taking so long.

Kristin Ford, deputy communications director at the attorney general’s office, said she couldn’t comment on “ongoing investigations.”

Mindy Spatt, a spokesperson for the Utility Reform Network, said that in the 40 years the watchdog organization has been in existence, Peevey’s tenure was by far the most scandal-ridden. “Former PUC president Peevey appears to walk away from all scandals involved scot-free.”

Mullin said he and the other officials asked for the investigation because the PUC seems to be putting the interests of an investor-owned utility before the public interest.

Ruane said he and other elected officials that represent San Bruno are working hard to make sure that the investigation into PUC corruption isn’t forgotten in the transition from Harris to Becerra as attorney general.

“We’re looking for charges to be filed,” Ruane said. “This back-door dealing has to stop. Money is one thing and politics is another and when you start to lose lives, it takes it to a whole other level.”

Mullin, D-South San Francisco, said he and the other officials asked for the investigation because the PUC seems to be putting the interests of an investor-owned utility before the public interest which it is expected to protect. “My priority is that we all get the facts and that the residents of San Bruno may have some form of closure,” he said in an email.

Becerra, the attorney general nominee, did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation. But Hill said he met Becerra on the senate floor and Becerra told him he would give the issue serious consideration.

Hill said he will do his best to ensure that the state attorney general’s office gets the resources it needs to complete the investigation.

“It will go as long as it takes for there to be justice for those who were responsible for the deaths of eight of my constituents,” he said. “That’s how long we’ll keep the fight going.”