Calif. plans to fine utility over fatal blast

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - California regulators said Wednesday they plan to fine Pacific Gas & Electric Co. up to $1 million a day to sanction the company for failing to turn over key safety records in the wake of a deadly natural gas explosion in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno.

The missing records for transmission lines running beneath some of the state's largest cities mean PG&E could be putting public safety in jeopardy, the California Public Utilities Commission said.

"The fact that PG&E didn't give us any of that information suggests strongly to me that it was a deliberate decision not to comply with the request," said Paul Clanon, the commission's executive director. "It suggests that PG&E thinks that business as usual is OK after San Bruno."

The company is not yet satisfied with the results of its records search, PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said Wednesday.

"We will continue to search and review our files for the pressure test records and provide the commission with regular updates on our efforts," Molica said.

Eight people were killed and three dozen homes were destroyed when a 1956-era pipe ruptured Sept. 9, sparking a giant fireball that burned for hours.

Weeks after the accident, regulators ordered PG&E to produce detailed safety records - and if necessary, do new engineering work - to prove that their aging pipes were running at safe pressure levels.

On Tuesday, PG&E sent regulators a summary of what they found following an exhaustive records search, in which hundreds of employees sifted through mounds of paperwork piled in a concert venue the company rented outside town.

PG&E said it could not find key safety records for 8 percent of its lines running through populated areas, but that was after the company used documents showing historical pressure levels for many of its older pipelines, rather than pressure tests or engineering work. The utility could not turn up pressure tests for 69 percent of those transmission lines laid before 1961, including for some sections of the line that blew up in San Bruno.

Clanon said the utility had no "legitimate or good-faith basis" to decide that pressure levels were safe by using historical levels, which would not necessarily identify improper welds or shoddy work.

Molica said PG&E plans to test or replace 150 miles of pipes with similar characteristics to the one that exploded.

It is unclear as yet how much the company could be fined. Any potential financial penalties started accruing Tuesday night, and the tab could keep running for several weeks until the commission meets to make a final decision, Clanon said.

The utility may ask for a reconsideration of the fines, but a spokesman did not immediately say whether PG&E planned to do so.

Clanon said he also was considering ordering PG&E to reduce pressure on additional gas lines.

"We don't have the information that we need to make sure that those pipelines are operating safely," Clanon said. "That is unacceptable."


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