CPUC names San Bruno investigation panel

October 14, 2010 6:52:00 PM PDT
The experts who will investigate the deadly San Bruno gas explosion are now in place; the California Public Utilities Commission made the announcement Thursday. Their chief objective is to find the root cause of the disaster that killed eight people. That panel will also consider whether the PUC needs to change the way it does business.

While there are already three ongoing investigations into what caused the explosion, this new one is broader. When done, it could make recommendations that together mean an overhaul of the system from management to maintenance.

PG&E has its own investigation into the San Bruno gas line explosion, the NTSB has one going, and so does the California Public Utilities Commission. Now add an independent five-member panel appointed by CPUC president Michael Peevey.

"It goes well beyond solely looking at the immediate causes of the San Bruno accident," says Peevey.

The panel's scope includes CPUC's role as regulator, management practices at PG&E, and infrastructure design and construction.

"I wanted to have a broad range of expertise from different walks of life and people that could devote a good portion of their time working on this over the next six months," says Peevey.

The panel chair is Larry Vanderhoef, chancellor emeritus of U.C. Davis.

"It is, in my mind, a personal issue for more than the people who faced the tragedy head-on. I think all of us recognize that it related to everybody even outside the state of California," says Vanderhoef.

Other panelists are Patrick Lavin, an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union executive, Karl Pister, chair of the Governing Board of the California Council on Science and Technology and a UC Santa Cruz chancellor Emeritus, and Jan Schori, former general manager and CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

The only one with a tie to PG&E is Paula Rosput Reynolds. She's former chair of a fortune-500 energy company, AGL Resources, whose holdings included natural gas lines on the eastern seaboard and 17-years ago she was an officer of PG&E affiliate called "PG&E Gas Transmission Company."

"I'm providing information to them, cooperating, looking forward to their recommendations," says Richard Clark, director of the CPUS's Consumer Protection and Safety Commission.

Clark is in charge of the commission's inspectors and investigators. He says he has no fear of the panel's findings.

"The thing about natural gas, the consequences of a failure are as you can see are significant, so you have to be able to build as many barriers as possible between daily operations and these sort of catastrophic failures," says Clark.

After the explosion, PG&E reduced the pressure in its lines coming into to San Francisco by 20 percent. It now wants permission to bring it back up to full pressure in anticipation of the cold winter months. The panel's first assignment will be to decide if it's safe to do that.


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