San Bruno Stories: “They cut corners, took shortcuts, looked for ways to interpret federal law in a manner that would benefit them financially”

Assemblymember Jerry Hill

Jerry Hill is a California State Assemblymember representing San Mateo County, where San Bruno lies. Below he reflects on the disaster and on PG&E’s and the California Public Utilities Commission’s culpability.

An edited transcript follows the audio.

Audio: Jerry Hill reflects on San Bruno disaster

I was driving north on highway 101, going to present a school with an award and I didn’t make it to the school. The traffic got very congested. And you could see the flames rising so high in the sky. It was very scary, even at that distance.

I gave a call to the mayor of San Bruno to find out what was going on and if he needed any help or assistance that we could provide. They assumed it was a gas explosion of some kind. Naturally others thought it was an airplane crash. Which was probably a good thing, because that brought in CalFire and the tankers, that came in and dropped retardant into areas that the fire could have spread into.

I read the transcript from Milipitas, which was the source of the gas, and then it works its way up the Peninsula. And in reading that, for two, three hours after the event, at no time did the person have a clue what had happened, or what should be done to activate personnel. At the end, there were two off-duty PG&E employees who came on their own and were heroes, found the valves and turned them off.

The legislation I authored this year requires high-automatic or remote shut off valves, especially in high-consequence areas, which are the high-urban areas of transmission systems.

I think the one major mistake is the lack of responsibility on the part of the CPUC. Because they’re ultimately responsible for the safety of the gas transmission system in California. And they failed us. Clearly failed us. They relied on information provided by a utility, a for-profit corporation, run by people from Wall Street, looking for that bottom line, not engineers.

They cut corners, they took shortcuts, they looked for ways to interpret federal law in a manner that would benefit them financially, that would make them not have to do the proper testing that would have been necessary to determine the safety of the valves and of the pipe.

It should not have happened. It could have been prevented, should have been prevented had everyone been doing their job.

You can’t trust a company that has been looking to maximize profits at every opportunity, and that’s what PG&E’s been doing.

I had a community event last week, and a volunteer at the event had lost her son and her husband on Sept 9th. Yet she wants to give back to the community and still participate. It’s difficult for me to even talk about it. But there’s a strength there I witnessed that was amazing.

Children have had a difficult time with the trauma. Many of them have had to move because their homes are no longer there. Going to different schools with different friends, having to pick up the pieces from that.

I think the challenge for many is that a lot of families will wake up in the morning and pick up the newspaper and see the continued safety problems that are out there, problems with PG&E and with the CPUC. The system failed these people, and they keep being reminded of that almost on a daily basis.

All of our San Bruno Stories:

San Bruno Stories: “They cut corners, took shortcuts, looked for ways to interpret federal law in a manner that would benefit them financially” 9 September,2011Amy Standen


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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