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."