Much remains unresolved on third anniversary of San Bruno pipeline blast

Has anything changed in the last 3 years?

Three years after an explosion resulting from PG&E blunders blew up a San Bruno neighborhood, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes, many questions concerning punishment, prosecution, legal liability and progress in making the utility’s aging natural gas pipelines safer remain unanswered.

“So many things are still up in the air,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno where the explosion took place. “PG&E has done a lot of work. But we are still not assured about the safety of PG&E’s natural gas pipelines.”

The unfinished response to the Sept. 9, 2010, disaster is underscored by the physical appearance of the explosion-torn neighborhood in the San Bruno hills. Empty lots, construction crews, stacks of lumber and other building materials dot the area. And the blast still scars the recollections of numerous residents.

“The other day, they were doing some pile-driving when they were digging up the street, and that started to rattle the whole house,” said Carole Guernsey, who lives with her husband, Jerry, in a home that was rebuilt after the explosion destroyed it. “It felt like the explosion was coming back. I couldn’t help it. The tears started rolling. That just totally brought back the memory.”

The Guernseys built a completely new home, while other victims of the blast, like Bob Hensel and his wife, Nancy, have rebuilt their homes to closely match the originals. Neither approach has brought closure to either family.

“I think about the people who lost their lives,” Bob Hensel said. “I remember people sifting through the ashes looking for remains.”

Critics of PG&E point out that fresh filings by the utility with the state Public Utilities Commission suggest it is still struggling to patch the flaws in its record-keeping that played a big role in the pipe failure that caused the explosion.

“Unfortunately, serious questions still remain about the safety of PG&E’s pipeline system, three years later,” said Thomas Long, legal director with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group. “That’s troubling. And that’s kind of the bottom line.”

But San Francisco-based PG&E insists it has made considerable progress toward making its natural gas pipeline system safer.

“I’m really pleased with the intensity and the amount of work our teams are doing,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Tony Earley said in a late July meeting with this newspaper’s editorial board. But he acknowledged that “We still have work to do on hydro testing and pipeline replacement work.”

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued 12 recommendations to enhance the safety and reliability of the utility’s natural gas system. To date, PG&E has completed seven of the 12, and Earley said the NTSB is “satisfied” with its progress.

Still, full completion of the recommendations may be years away. Earley said hydro testing of the pipelines to detect weaknesses will not be finished before “a couple more years.”

PG&E so far has undertaken strength testing on 522 miles of gas pipelines, automated 81 valves, replaced 62 miles of pipelines, and retrofitted 133 miles of pipelines, said Brittany Chord, a PG&E spokeswoman. And just last week, it opened a state-of-the-art pipeline control center in San Ramon.

Despite the progress, some residents of the San Bruno neighborhood complain that PG&E has yet to be fully held to account for the explosion.

For one thing, a number of civil lawsuits involving more than 500 plaintiffs who sued PG&E have yet to be resolved, though PG&E cites progress on that front.

“We have paid about $380 million to settle third-party claims, as of Aug. 31, 2013,” Chord said. “We have settled 163 court cases filed against PG&E that involved 501 plaintiffs. Settlements have been reached with 152 plaintiffs. We are working to settle the remaining cases.”

Separately, federal and San Mateo County prosecutors have not filed any criminal charges in the matter.

Also unresolved is the financial punishment the state Public Utilities Commission will impose on the utility for the explosion.

The PUC staff has proposed a $4 billion financial punishment, including a fine of at least $300 million, which would be the largest that the PUC has ever imposed. But PG&E wants the penalties to be levied in a manner that critics say would enable the utility to escape with minimal monetary punishment. The commission is expected to rule on the penalties by the end of the year.

PG&E has warned that its gas and electricity customers could face a 4 percent rate hike if the PUC penalties cause the utility’s costs of raising capital to rise. The utility even has suggested that a bankruptcy filing could be in the cards if the penalty is too harsh.

“We are very unhappy that PG&E is crying wolf to Wall Street about bankruptcy if they get a large fine,” said Mark Toney, executive director with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group. “When somebody is found guilty of a transgression, you don’t look at their ability to pay. You look at the size of the violation.”

Still another unresolved matter for PG&E is a lingering concern that its natural gas pipelines are still not sufficiently safe.

Like many in her community, San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson is skeptical about PG&E’s progress. But she says the heightened scrutiny itself is beneficial, even if the utility’s system has a way to go before it is safe.

“If the gas pipeline system is safer, that’s only because more people are paying attention,” Jackson said. “The challenge is to keep the spotlight on the deficiencies and the issues that need correction.”

All of the nagging, unresolved issues surrounding the blast remain a cause of constant irritation to residents of the neighborhood.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Carole Guernsey said. “They blew us up. They need to get the settlement done, pay what they need to pay, and move forward. If we can put PG&E behind us, then we can have a life again.”