Critics Want Outsider to Boost ‘Noxious' Culture of Safety at California Public Utlities Commission

Critics of the California Public Utilities Commission are pushing for an outsider to run the safety advocacy arm of the agency in light of the brief tenure of the insider who resigned after holding the role for just three months.

Since the 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, the commission that regulates gas utilities in the state has faced constant criticism that it is too lax in its regulation of utility safety.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, (D-San Mateo), says that despite strong criticism by an independent review panel and the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency has been unable to reform how it views safety.

"It’s very frustrating, it’s very sad,’’ Hill said. "The culture at the PUC hasn’t changed related to safety. It’s still not sexy, it’s not something that they value or they prioritize. And they don’t understand it, at the highest level, and that’s really the problem."

Hill had been encouraged by the appointment of a 20-year veteran regulator, Dorothy Duda, to run the PUC’s Office of Safety Advocates. The office was mandated this year under legislation Hill wrote to assure that safety was being considered during regulatory hearings and rate setting cases.

But in December, after just three months, Duda announced that she will soon assume another role within the agency. Hill says her rapid departure is a sign that safety is still not properly valued at the agency.

"She’s kind of the canary in the coal mine," Hill says, "because she is showing the culture of safety is noxious at the PUC and hasn’t been changed yet."

Hill says an outsider with a safety background may be what the commission needs to change its culture.

"I don’t believe they have anyone inside the organization that can do that," he said.

Meanwhile, San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane is worried that the window to reforming the safety culture at the agency may be closing. It has been six years since the PG&E pipeline explosion killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood.

In that time, he says, many reform efforts have been blocked, including a package of six bills vetoed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

"My fear, and I hope it’s just a fear that goes away, is that we’re going to be saddled with business as usual going forward," Ruane said.

Calling it a "very scary proposition," Ruane explained that "it’s scary because nothing really has been done of substance."

Ruane and other critics are counting on a federal court judge to revive lagging safety efforts. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderon is expected to impose an independent monitor on Pacific Gas and Electric Co., following its conviction on pipeline safety and obstruction charges.

But Ruane says the commission needs to get involved to assure the monitor will succeed.

"If he independently monitors PG&E and the regulatory agency that oversees PG&E comes down with watered down rules and regulations – wait a minute – the CPUC has to be part of this also in some way, shape or form," Ruane said. "This independent monitor has to take that into consideration. "

In response to NBC Bay Area's questions about the Office of Safety Advocates, the commission issued a statement that cited strides made by the agency in boosting its safety culture.

"We are working diligently to fully implement (the new safety advocate legislation), and have made tremendous progress in the three months since we created the office, so it is disappointing to hear our efforts baselessly criticized," the statement said.

But Hill remains skeptical.

He doubts that the commission’s favored approach of simply adding layers of management to oversee safety will make a difference.

"If they just move people around and it becomes part of the bureaucracy," he said, "that’s not going to work, because no one has that expertise."

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