Real consequences for those responsible 

The PG&E CEO, Peter Darbee, was allowed to walk away with a $35 million retirement package. When people die, there should be more serious consequences for executives than golden parachutes.

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board cited PG&E’s “lax approach to pipeline safety and the inadequate oversight of two government agencies [the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] as the probable cause of the most devastating pipeline accident in a decade.”

The board determined that the San Bruno explosion “was clearly preventable.” NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said, “Our investigation revealed that for years, PG&E exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight.”

PG&E’s culpability includes allowing improperly welded pipe to be installed in 1956, failing to maintain accurate records, failing to adequately inspect and test the pipe, not providing automatic or remote control gas shutoff valves and taking 95 minutes to turn off the gas after the pipe ruptured.

The PUC is culpable by not effectively evaluating the safety of PG&E’s pipe integrity management program and allowing older pipes not to be inspected or tested. And PHMSA contributed by not providing effective administration of oversight commissions such as the PUC.

“For government to do its job — safeguard the public — it cannot trust alone, it must verify through effective oversight,” said Hersman. “As we saw in San Bruno, when the approach to safety is lax, the consequences can be deadly.”

Amazingly, none of this is new. The NTSB discovered that PG&E’s poor quality control during pipe installation and inadequate emergency response contributed to the explosion of a gas pipeline in Rancho Cordova in 2008.
PG&E officials say they’ve now learned their lesson and are planning $2.2 billion worth of upgrades to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But they want to stick their ratepayers with 90 percent of the tab, including the people living in the San Bruno neighborhood that exploded due to PG&E’s negligence. Talk about adding insult to injury.

It’s likely that more accidents with deadly consequences will happen in the future if those responsible are not made to pay for their actions. CEOs should face the possibility of jail time when people die due to their decisions not to provide adequate public safeguards. Their companies should not be allowed to pass along the costs of their mistakes to their customers. And regulatory overseers should lose their jobs when their oversight fails so miserably that people lose their lives.

Imposing serious consequences for criminal negligence by corporate and government officials won’t bring back the eight dead San Bruno residents. But it might help prevent the next fatalities.

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