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KCBS In Depth: San Bruno Mayor On Lessons From Pipeline Blast

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SAN BRUNO (KCBS) — Three years after a deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, the city’s mayor is still not satisfied that an incident like the one that devastated his city couldn’t happen again.

“We’ve learned so much in the last three years,” said Jim Ruane, who has served as the city’s mayor since 2009.

When asked about the recovery, Ruane said, “Physically we’re working very hard to bring the community back.”

Sixteen homes have been rebuilt and reoccupied by their original residents. The original occupants of six other homes are expected to return soon.

 

Among the remaining lots, Ruane said the city owns five, while PG&E owns seven. Ten of those 12 lots will be given to a general contractor and developer to rebuild. He predicted it would take about a year to complete.

“Some people have decided to sell and not come back simply because they’re older and it would take another couple of years to rebuild. And some of the people that lost family members are still talking to the city about what to do with their individual lots,” he said.

Ruane commended the community for the outpouring of support and strength in the aftermath of the incident, but he reflects and is bothered by what he originally thought was an accident.

“The saddest part of this whole story; the worst thing is that this could have been prevented,” he said.

Ruane has coordinated with representatives on a state and national level, including U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier and State Senator Jerry Hill, to investigate the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). He has also made more than 30 trips to National Transportation Safety Board investigation hearings in Washington.

“NTSB investigations highlighted the fact that there was too cozy a relationship between the utility and the regulatory body that was supposed to oversee them. We’ve discovered how arrogant the head of the CPUC can be and how they actually violated their own internal rules and regulations. Profits were put ahead of regulations,” Ruane said.

He continued to explain how the CPUC oversees PG&E and the rate-making process and that there were several entities involved in the investigation including the City of San Francisco, watchdog group The Utility Reform Network (TURN) and PG&E, who is supposed to be independent of the CPUC.

PG&E tried to set up a safety symposium earlier this year with the CPUC President Michael Peevey and the president of PG&E on the panel. “There’s total conflict there,” Ruane said. “It’s like somebody has a backdoor into our public utilities commission and it’s just not right.”

Ruane described the city’s relationship with PG&E as “cordial” in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and had quickly negotiated a $50 million neighborhood rebuilding program. Along with his city manager, he argued that the City of San Bruno was also a victim and they negotiated a restitution of $70 million from the utility company. The money was used to develop a not-for-profit for the city to be used by and for the people and what they want, not for day-to-day or city expenses.

“We’re working hard for fines and penalties,” Ruane said. “We want PG&E and its shareholders to pay. We want them to hurt in this situation.”

Ruane said he believes there is sincerity on the utility company’s part to change their ways, but he sees it as a generational problem since they’ve operated for so long in a certain way. He doesn’t think change will come overnight.

As far as any criminal penalties go, Ruane explained as far as he knows there is a three-year statute of limitations in San Mateo County to take action. The District Attorney has decided not to take action because that same statute has a five-year limit with the federal government and to his understanding, something will be done on a federal level within the next two years.

“It was criminal what happened,” Ruane said.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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