By Noah Arroyo
We don't yet know if the San Bruno fire is a horrific accident or an equally horrific mistake. But Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which owns and operates the gas line that ruptured, has a history of incidents that look a lot like this one. Some of these incidents have caused power outages. Others have blown things up, or injured people.
The company also has a history taking money that ought to go to maintenance and diverting it into fat corporate profits.
In December of 2003, a cable fire at the Mission Substation of the Golden Gate Control Center caused a more than 100,000 people to lose power. The California Public Utilities Commission inspected the incident and found that PG&E suffered from general procedural laziness, and that "PG&E failed to follow three recommendations made in its 1996 Root Cause Analysis Report following [a] 1996 fire."
At the time, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera noted: “The evidence is clear that PG&E knew about problems that endangered public safety and threatened to cost San Francisco businesses millions—and yet did nothing to fix them.”
Then, in August 2005, something exploded underground the intersection of Kearny and Post. A manhole cover shot into the air and the escaping fire severely burned a passer by. The event's catalyst was a failed transformer, owned and operated by PG&E.
In June last year, a fire peeked and then roared from a manhole with enough force to resemble an explosion to onlookers. The electrical fire, at O'Farrell and Polk, was coming from a PG&E vault. The impact? 8,600 customers lost power. This, like Thursday's fire at San Bruno, was a fire bigger and more resilient than what emergency responders at first assumed. At least in 2009, nobody died.
Another difference: In 2009, leading up to the explosion, PG&E didn't know about the problem beforehand.
Why hadn't PG&E replaced this natural gas pipe (the San Bruno fire's origin) since its installation in 1948? Was the problem one of cost? If so, would replacing such a pipe cost more than the $46 million the company spent trying to push Proposition 16 in June's election?
Or could this be a replay of the Rough and Ready fire of 1994?
That year, an inferno raged through the small Nevada County town, destroying a dozen homes and causing $2 million in damage. The cause of the fire? Tree limbs that PG&E was supposed to trim brushing against the company’s power lines.
The local district attorney sued, and during the trial, evidence came to light that PG&E had taken $80 million from ratepayers -- money that was supposed to be used for tree trimming -- and diverted it to executive salaries and to pad the bottom line.
The company was found guilty of criminal negligence and fined $2 million.
So if PG&E in fact failed to maintain its facilities, at great cost to the public, it wouldn’t be the first time.