State Senate committee examines San Bruno gas explosion

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A couple walks by homes that were destroyed by fire following a deadly gas main explosion on September 13, 2010 in San Bruno, California.

A joint State Senate committee met Tuesday in Sacramento to figure out what could have prevented the deadly gas line explosion in San Bruno. Eight people died when the line burst and set fire to 37 homes.

Lawmakers want to tighten oversight of the tens of thousands of feet of natural gas pipeline in California.

Rene Morales told senators at a joint hearing of committees on Energy, Utilities and Public Safety that her daughter Jessica was watching a football game with her boyfriend Joe when the pipeline exploded – and engulfed his house in flames.

"Jessica did make it out of that house and she ran for her life," said Morales. "Unfortunately she was separated from Joe and she couldn’t make it out. She ran for cover in a shed to the house next door and that’s where she perished."

Pacific Gas and Electric owns the pipeline that ruptured. But the senators wanted to know what the state Public Utilities Commission – the pipeline regulator – could have done to prevent the explosion.

They asked how the commission could approve a PG&E rate increase to pay to replace the pipeline, but not follow up to see if the work was done. It wasn’t. PG&E postponed it.

L.A. Democrat Alex Padilla asked Commission chief Richard Clark to explain. "At this point," said Padilla, "we are letting the utility unilaterally decide, 'No, these projects have now become important from one year to the next and we’re going to shift the money.' Is that correct?"

"That’s correct," said Clark.

The Public Utilities Commission learned three years ago that the pipeline was slated for replacement – but didn’t keep track of whether that happened.

San Francisco Bay Area senator Mark Leno asked Commissioner Richard Clark if that indicates a problem. "With hindsight," said Leno, "with information filed on record with CPUC going back to 2007, is there anything the PUC might have done differently that could have potentially prevented this from happening?"

"Boy, I, I, I don’t know how we could have prevented this from happening, sir," said Clark after a pause. "Because I tell you, if we could, I would have. Absolutely. But I don’t know how we could have prevented this from happening."

The Public Utilities Commission employs nine people to inspect hundreds of miles of natural gas pipeline. That’s where the hearing came full circle. State lawmakers – not the Public Utilities Commission set the limit on the number of inspectors.

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