Over the Hill

PG&E should pay for San Bruno blast

Special to The TribuneMay 30, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

The 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people, injured dozens more and destroyed 38 homes. We mustn’t allow PG&E stockholders to evade paying the fine for it.

Earlier this month state regulators proposed fining PG&E $2.25 billion for that blast. The decision on the fine will be made later this year by state Public Utilities Commission judges.

Federal and state regulators blame the explosion on faulty welding and inadequate inspections. PG&E has said its workers may have used leftover pieces from other pipeline projects when they built that San Bruno pipeline in 1956.

Many people are worrying about who will actually pay the fine. Will PG&E’s stockholders pay it? Or will PG&E’s executives find a way to get it from us PG&E customers?

PG&E officials say their shareholders are already paying $2.2 billion to upgrade and improve the system, so that amount should be deducted from the fine.

That’s like Carouser Carl trying to talk himself out of a drunken-driving fine after smashing his junky jalopy into two cars and injuring several people. He tells the judge, “My fine should be reduced by the amount of money I spent for a new, safer car and drying myself out at a rehabilitation ranch.”

But the judge replies, “The fine is punishment. Getting a new car and rehabilitated are just necessary, though neglected, operating expenses.”

And that’s what the PUC judges should tell PG&E: “Your system upgrades and improvements are just necessary, though neglected, upkeep. The fine, however, is punishment to remind you that customer safety deserves a higher priority than increased profits.”

And another thing: The San Francisco Chronicle said PG&E may be able to deduct $900 million of the fine from its taxes. If that’s true, the fine should be raised by $900 million.

Am I being too tough on PG&E? I don’t believe the people of San Bruno would think so. All big corporations need to be reminded that they aren’t sovereign powers, free to do whatever they think is best for them.

And let’s not forget that PG&E is the corporation that spent $40 million in 2010 trying to get us voters to pass Proposition 16. It would have given PG&E a major advantage over the local public utilities it competes with.

I hope high PG&E executives and other corporate leaders read the words of the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis. He spoke of “The cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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