CA PUC’s Legal Team Wants To Withdraw PG&E’s $2.25 Billion Fine

A newly reinstated legal team at the California Public Utilities Commission has told two administrative law judges it wants to withdraw a controversial plan for imposing a $2.25 billion fine on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

The lawyers working with the PUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division told the two administrative judges in a filing on Monday that they want to submit a revised proposal by July 15. They gave no details, but said the revision would “correct certain inaccuracies” in the division’s previous briefs.

The explosion of a natural gas pipeline and subsequent fire on Sept. 9, 2010, killed eight people, destroyed 38 houses and damaged dozens of other buildings.

The $2.25 billion fine was recommended by PUC safety division chief Jack Hagan in a brief submitted to the administrative judges on May 6 and supported in a reply brief Hagan filed on June 6.

It was criticized as being too lenient by the city of San Bruno and by a consumer group, The Utility Reform Network, because PG&E would have been allowed to count past and future safety improvement expenses as payment of the penalty.

The safety division legal team that had worked on the case abruptly resigned from that role in early June but was reinstated on June 26 by the PUC, which also announced that PUC General Counsel Frank Lindh had stepped aside as the chief advisory lawyer in the case.

Assistant General Counsel Harvey Morris then returned to his post as the leader of the division lawyers working on proposals for remedies and fines related to the explosion.

Morris told the two administrative law judges in Monday’s filing that the division wanted to withdraw the June 6 reply brief and submit an amended reply brief by 5 p.m. on July 15.

Morris gave no details, but said the amended brief would “clarify” the safety division’s position and “might make moot at least some of the issues” raised by San Bruno.

“Given the unorthodox events that have transpired during the briefing of the fines and remedies phase, and the confusion over which attorneys represent the Consumer Protection and Safety Division, CPSD needs to correct certain inaccuracies in statements in its briefs,” Morris wrote.

The division attorneys suggested that other parties in the case, including San Bruno, could reply to the new proposal by July 22.

The two administrative law judges will eventually submit a recommendation to the full commission on a penalty for PG&E.

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said in a statement, “This is a step in the right direction for the people of San Bruno and for consumer safety advocates who, for almost three years, have waited for some measure of justice following this devastating and PG&E-made tragedy.

“The CPUC’s safety division is doing the right thing by revising its original penalty recommendation,” the mayor said.

PG&E argued in a May 24 filing that the proposed $2.25 billion fine was too high because there was no evidence that the utility willfully or knowingly violated state or federal law or PUC orders.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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