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PG&E Issues Apology Letter for Pipeline Explosion

The utility said it was important to make sure the public heard directly from the top leaders that PG&E is changing since the tragic Sept. 9 fire.

Story updated June 6.

PG&E began running a full-page letter today in newspapers throughout Northern California apologizing for the tragic Sept. 9 pipeline explosion in the Crestmoor neighborhood.

According to the utility’s website, the letter was meant to send a message to the public directly from PG&E’s leadership that things were changing.

“It’s to say to our customers and neighbors that we are sorry for the San Bruno accident and that we are working to make our operations safer and stronger,” Lee Cox, interim chairman and CEO of PG&E Corp., said in a statement.

In the letter, PG&E admits that a faulty longitudinal seam weld in Line 132—which ruptured near Glenview Drive and Earl Avenue, leaving 38 homes destroyed and eight people dead—was the source of the explosion, as the National Transportation Safety Board has noted in its . However, the letter states that the cause of the explosion has yet to be determined.

The letter, signed by Cox and PG&E President Chris Johns, also outlines actions the utility has taken to address safety concerns about its pipelines since the explosion, including on some gas transmission lines, to oversee all of the utility’s gas operations and starting on more than 150 miles of pipeline.

The apology, which is expected to appear in more than 35 newspapers, comes as PG&E continues to be mired in scrutiny over its pipeline safety practices following the explosion. Just this week, the utility acknowledged that it would miss another key deadline this month to produce documents on bad welds in its gas pipelines over the last 55 years, according to media reports.

PG&E to produce detailed records related to operating pressures for its gas pipelines, after which it was fined $3 million by the California Public Utilities Commission for being out of compliance with an order to prove maximum pressure was properly set on the utility’s gas transmission lines.

Kathy DeRenzi, the neighborhood advocate for the Crestmoor residents affected by the explosion, said it is unfortunate that it took something as tragic as the fire for PG&E to “wake up” about its pipeline safety practices.

“It’s too bad it took this tragedy and the lives of our neighbors to wake PG&E up!” DeRenzi said in an email. “This is a start but the road is long for those of us who ran for our lives, lost loved ones and lost everything, including our faith, in PG&E.”

For Kevin Ashley, whose family has decided to permanently move out of San Bruno after being forced to evacuate from their home after the fire, the apology is meaningless and has come several months too late.

He said his confidence in PG&E and in all large companies has steadily declined as reports continue to surface about the lack of oversight that has been allowed over the utility's pipeline safety practices.

"PG&E has a systemic way of not accurately capturing records," said Ashley, whose family has been in a South San Francisco rental since the explosion. "And they're showing negligence in assuming that everything is always going to be good. To me, it seems like they're catering more to their shareholders, and this apology letter is just PR stuff to make the public happy." 

Other responses to the apology letter were mixed.

Robert Pellegrini, who lost his home in the fire but whose family is planning to rebuild, also said the apology was a little late and wished PG&E had taken steps to be proactive before the disaster.

City Manager Connie Jackson said the steps PG&E has taken since the blast are a good start to showing the utility's commitment to pipeline safety—and she hoped that commitment would stay strong moving forward.

But, "there is still a long way to go for our residents whose lives were so tragically and irreparably impacted, for the community as a whole to rebuild and heal, and for PG&E to fully implement their commitment to assure rehabilitation and safe operation of their system," Jackson said.

Bill Magoolaghan, whose home was destroyed but whose family is also planning to rebuild, said he is still cynical about the whole thing. But he added that he'd like to believe that an apology coming directly from PG&E officials was authentic.

"Sometimes the smallest steps are the ones that generate the greatest strides forward," Magoolaghan said, "and maybe this apology will lead to significant improvements that will make a difference."

Wicoso Chang June 02, 2011 at 10:15 PM
Apology will not bring back the dead and will not fix decades of stupidity and incompetence. The proof is in the pudding, I will not believe whatever PG&E is saying until proven. I still think PG&E is a f***king stupid and incompetent utility! Let's wait for a few years to see whether it can improve.
Gordon Starr June 02, 2011 at 10:48 PM
I say we are seeing some enlightened leadership at PG&E. Consider this: PG&E leaders are not hiding behind a corporate shield and they are not blaming past PG&E administrations. Rather, they are taking full responsibility, they are publicly apologizing, and they are making bold promises and asking to be held to account. They have taken audacious action, not the least of which was the $100 million "no strings attached" fund for the San Bruno victims. That is not business as usual. We have to remember, there is no "PG&E". There are only individuals, like you and me, our neighbors and friends, working to serve their communities. Just like you and me, none of them ever wanted this to happen. Given their current level of transparency, and level of responsibility, I trust them to ensure it does not happen again.
Wicoso Chang June 03, 2011 at 05:09 AM
Sorry, Gordon, I respectfully disagree. One does not issue an apology nine (9) months after the fact. That is not an apology, that is a PR ploy. You call that responsibility? Responsibility would be to do the job they're supposed to do in the first place (it's their job!) to avoid preventable accidents that kill people. Responsibility is issuing a sincere apology immediately after the accident, not 9 months later. Responsibility is choosing a reputable contractor who can actually rebuild those homes that were destroyed (I just heard in the news that the contractor PG&E chose is going out of business, leaving those people whose homes were destroyed in limbo). Responsibility is being able to know your own operations and where the records are. Responsibility is not to use $250,000 of ratepayers money (they say it's shareholders' money but we all know all PG&E's money eventually come from ratepayers) to run these stupid ads. I do agree with you, however, that PG&E is run by individuals. There are more of those individuals throughout the organization who need to be fired because they are simply incompetent. They have no qualifications in leading a monopoly, regulated utility. Ratepayers hate PG&E and given the choice, will choose another company. PG&E is a joke, run by jokers!
John H. June 03, 2011 at 06:08 AM
I have to agree more with Wicoso. We know that the pipeline explosion was preventable, but we also know that accidents happen and mistakes are made in a massive bureaucracy such as PG&E. This accident was also the fault of the CPUC and the Federal Government. Pipeline explosion accidents have happened many times in the past and continue to happen, despite this fact. Better safety regulations should have been enacted years ago at all levels to ensure redundancy. We all know that the cost of upgrading and retrofitting pipelines has to be paid by ratepayers; it has to come from somewhere. This nations infrastructure is old and decaying more day by day. We know that there is no money to fix things. The highest priority though, should be infrastructure which involves the safety of the general public. The Federal government wastes so much of our taxpayer dollars, some of which could have been used to upgrade decaying or unsafe pipelines in urban areas; and thus would have saved ratepayers from more rate increases for that purpose. Ultimately the fault and responsibility lies with PG&E. They should have been repairing pipelines instead of spending millions on ballot measures to defeat competition in the industry; ie. city owned utilities such as Silicon Valley Power. They will pay far more in lawsuits than it would have costed to properly maintain the San Bruno pipeline, -lawsuits which the ratepayers will ultimately be responsible for footing the bill.
Wicoso Chang June 04, 2011 at 03:59 AM
John H, Gordon Starr used to be, or still is, coaching PG&E executives: http://starrco.org/success/index.html Thus, it's quite understandable why he would think PG&E leadership is enlightened.

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