Bill package targets gas pipeline safety
by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle
A state lawmaker who represents the San Bruno neighborhood devastated by a natural-gas explosion in 2010 introduced a package of bills Monday designed to prevent a repeat of the disaster, including one that would tie Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s rates to its safety performance.
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, whose district includes the Crestmoor neighborhood where the PG&E gas explosion killed eight people, said the bills would build on recently enacted state laws mandating that pipeline operators pressure-test their gas lines, install emergency automatic shutoff valves on pipes and improve their emergency response protocols.
"Much work remains to be done … to prevent another disaster," Hill said at a press conference outside the San Francisco offices of the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency that regulates PG&E and other pipeline operators in the state.
The package of three bills would:
— Require the PUC and pipeline operators to implement "in a timely manner" any gas-safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board.
— Require the commission to create a protection program for utility employees who disclose public safety threats.
— Order the PUC to consider the safety performance of PG&E and other utilities in setting gas rates that the companies can charge their customers.
Bill died last year
Hill introduced similar profit-limiting legislation last year, only to have it die in a Senate committee. "I vow to bring that legislation back every year until it is passed and signed by the governor," he said.
Until recently, he said, PG&E was "gambling with the public safety – less money spent on pipeline safety inspections and pipeline replacements meant more money for profits."
Hill said his bill tying gas rates to safety, AB1456, would "prevent this gamble from happening." He said he was encouraged that the commission will hold a workshop Wednesday to determine how to consider safety performance in setting rates.
"The commission may be on its way to transforming itself from the lapdog it’s been to the bulldog it needs to be," Hill said.
Hill’s legislation on adopting the National Transportation Safety Board’s gas safety recommendations, AB578, comes five months after the federal agency issued about a dozen recommendations to PG&E and the utilities commission in response to the San Bruno disaster. The board said a long history of mismanagement by PG&E of its gas system had caused the fatal explosion, and that the PUC hadn’t done enough to police the company.
Hill noted that the commission had "routinely ignored" past safety board recommendations, including that gas utilities install automatic shutoff valves on gas pipelines and replace a potentially brittle type of plastic distribution pipe, known as Aldyl-A, that was implicated in two PG&E explosions last year.
After those blasts in Cupertino and the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, PG&E announced plans to replace all 1,200 miles of its Aldyl-A pipe.
State says it’s acting
The PUC issued a statement Monday that outlined how it is complying with safety board recommendations, including requiring pressure testing of pipes, cutting pressure on gas lines whose maximum levels are in doubt, ordering records reviews and implementing a program to cite utilities promptly for safety violations.
Hill’s third bill, AB1197, would bar utilities from retaliating against workers who blow the whistle on safety problems.
PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer said the company would be giving Hill’s measures "the attention they deserve."
He said PG&E is already encouraging its employees to identify safety problems and said the company already prohibits retaliation against workers for raising concerns.
"Our leadership is actively requesting employees to share that information so we can investigate," Eisenhauer said.