sanbrunofiredamage.jpgThe head of the California Public Utilities Commission appointed himself this week to be the lead commissioner in determining if PG&E will be fined for the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.

But Assemblyman Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno, and others say that CPUC President Michael Peevey is why the commission has allowed utilities to place profits before safety.

On Tuesday, the CPUC issued a Notice of Assignment indicating that Peevey will oversee the penalty phase of the San Bruno investigation.

Critics of the decision say that other commissioners have more experience with gas issues than Peevey does, and that Peevey, who has led the commission for a decade, has created a culture of complacency.

“Peevey’s failure to police PG&E has been documented over and over again,” Mark Toney, The Utility Reform Network executive director, said Wednesday. “New leadership, untainted by past failures, is needed to move this investigation forward.”

The investigation was opened on Jan. 12 and will determine whether the utility violated laws and regulations regarding the construction of the pipeline, the utility’s pipeline maintenance procedures, and its emergency response procedures.

The Sept. 9, 2010 explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno’s Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood.

Last year, Hill announced legislation that would require state natural gas regulators such as the CPUC to take action on safety recommendations handed down by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hill said that the commission has had a “hands-off” approach to regulating industry providers such as PG&E but that “the ultimate responsibility for what happened … belongs with the CPUC.”

Had the CPUC acted upon recommendations from the NTSB made after a 1982 pipeline explosion in San Francisco, Hill said, the explosion might have been prevented.

Of Peevey, Hill said “his complacency contributed to the loss of life in San Bruno” and that it was under Peevey’s leadership that the CPUC allowed PG&E to divert funds from safety and operation and maintenance to profit and bonuses.

Peevey’s self-appointment, he said, “is a slap in the face, certainly to the people of San Bruno.”

According to TURN, previous gas cases before the CPUC have been assigned primarily to Commissioner Mike Florio, who was previously a senior attorney at The Utility Reform Network, and Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon, who is chair of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Committee on Natural Gas.

The commission issued a statement Wednesday stressing that “each Commissioner handles cases across many industries” and that “it takes a vote of the five Commissioners to decide a case at the CPUC.”

The assigned commissioner assembles the record and presents a decision to the full commission, but the full commission must vote on that proposal, according to the statement.

“If we determine PG&E has violated the law, we are prepared to impose very significant fines,” Peevey said at the outset of the commission’s consideration of lodging penalties against the utility.

Hill said today that he wrote a letter Wednesday to Gov. Jerry Brown urging him to consider exercising his authority to appoint a new commission president.

“The conflict is so great that we can’t get a fair and impartial determination of blame,” Hill said.

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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