Sparks Fly Over San Bruno Explosion At CPUC Meeting

What usually would have been a dull meeting of the CPUC erupted in verbal pyrotechnics between two state leaders over the explosive tragedy in San Bruno late last year.

Assemblymember Jerry Hill accuses the CPUC of having a ‘culture of complacency,’ singling out former utility executive and current commission president Michael Peevey in his heated criticism.

San Francisco—What usually would have been a dull meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission Thursday afternoon erupted in verbal pyrotechnics between two state leaders over the explosive tragedy in San Bruno late last year.

The massive fatal pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno on Sept. 9 was the focus of the outburst that included pointed criticism of the CPUC and signaled imminent change at the commission.

Peninsula Assemblyman Jerry Hill—whose district includes the deadly San Bruno blast zone—wasn’t buying it.

“It took outside entities, federal investigators and media reports to shed light on problems the CPUC should have been focusing on,” Hill asserted.

Assemblyman Hill put as much blame for the disaster on a lax CPUC as PG&E.

“This commission has failed the people of California and especially the residents in my district by your culture of complacency,” he said.

Hill singled out former utility executive and current commission president Michael Peevey in his heated criticism.

“So I think the direction comes from the top, Mr. President, and I think that’s where your leadership should be,” Hill said.

The five-member lame duck CPUC, already two commissioners short, tried to blunt the mounting criticism of being too cozy with PG&E by invoking President Barack Obama’s words from Wednesday night’s speech.

“It’s our duty to listen to each other more carefully and sharpen our instincts for empathy,” Peevey replied. “Try to reduce the level of vindictiveness and acrimony.”

Peevey also responded to Hill’s criticism directly and defended others who work for the CPUC.

“I would point out to you, Mr. Hill, that this commission appointed a five-member independent body to look at this,” Peevey said, referring to the San Bruno explosion. “You made no mention whatsoever and no recognition of that, and I find that contemptible. You’ve also managed to slur several hundred people in one fell swoop.”

In the next few weeks, new Governor Jerry Brown will be able to appoint as many as three new commissioners. Consumer advocate Mindy Spatt with The Utility Reform Network said that would take power away from former Governor Schwarzenegger’s perceived pro-utility appointees.

“Change direction on a commission that desperately needs change. Appoint more fair and balanced commissioners that will consider consumers’ interests and not be beholden to the utility companies,” said Spatt.

That kind of change would result in PG&E facing tough, stepped-up regulation it hasn’t seen in years.