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Rancho Cordova Blast Fine Too Low to Assure Future Public Safety

Written By : Warner Todd Huston
November 15, 2011

In 2008 a pipeline operated by Pacific Gas & Electric exploded destroying several homes and killing 72-year-old Wilbert Paana. Since that time authorities have been attempting to determine what sort of fines PG&E should face for its negligence. Recently administrative law judge John Wong proposed that a fine of $38 million — and an end to the whole matter — would be enough. But is this enough to assure the protection and safety of California’s ratepayers?

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To his credit, Judge Wong rejected an even lower proposal of a $26 million fine noting that if found guilty the utility would face at least a $97 million if found guilty of all the charges and safety violations leveled against it. Yet, he’s willing to let PG&E get away with less than half of what it could face were it to go the distance in the courts.

Whatever is fair or not, though, one thing must be noted. PG&E’s board recently rewarded CEO Peter Darbee with a $35 million severance package even though he presided over multiple violations of safety including that Rancho Cordova incident that took the life of Mr. Panna, not to mention eight more deaths in the San Bruno incident. He also headed up the utility as it wasted $46 million on the ballot initiative Prop 16 which was an attempt to enshrine in law PG&E’s California monopoly.

So, Mr. Darbee has been involved in the waste of $81 million of PG&E’s funds, at the very least. One would think that if PG&E has this much money to throw around that it should be held accountable properly for the deaths of so many of its customers!

Unfortunately Judge Wong’s proposal wasn’t rejected by the California Public Utilities Commission as it should have been. A more careful examination of the violations should have been made in order to fulfill the CPUC’s charge of Enforcing, “consumer protection laws and service standards, investigate fraud and illegal activity,” and to, “prosecute violators of the Public Utilities Code, CPUC orders, and utility tariffs.”

In fact, even as this proposal by Judge Wong was being floated, state officials were finding that PG&E may have used substandard “junked pipe” in its system in the 40s and 50s raising the specter of many other San Brunos and Rancho Cordovas just waiting to happen.

With these constant violations and the public obviously still in danger sweeping this case under the rug with this fine and an end to the case does not seem like the best idea. The people of California deserve to learn the full extent of what PG&E is responsible for perpetrating against them. Let’s hope that as time goes on the people of California finally get their day in court.

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