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Analyst: PUC safety jobs left vacant despite oversight concerns

Thomas Hawk/Flickr A police officer surveys the damage after a 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno. 

Despite concerns about safety and oversight after the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline blast, the California Public Utilities Commission has 135 vacant positions, including many in the consumer safety division, according to the state legislative analyst.

The utilities commission, which faced withering criticism after the San Bruno natural gas explosion killed eight people, is requesting more than 40 new positions in the state budget to improve oversight and enforcement. But in reviewing the budget request, the Legislative Analyst's Office found dozens of vacancies, including 31 in consumer safety, or about 14 percent of that division.

"It is alarming," said Tiffany Roberts, senior fiscal and policy analyst for energy and climate change at the analyst's office. "Right now, the premier question is, 'Why do we have so many vacancies to begin with?' "

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The state Assembly subcommittee dealing with the budget request decided Wednesday to keep the issue open as various agencies investigate the vacancy situation.

"I was concerned when I saw that figure," said Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Los Altos, the subcommittee chairman, "and particularly in light of the fact that we were being asked to consider the request for additional positions."

The Public Utilities Commission disputed the legislative analyst's count.

"We think the LAO's vacancy analysis is outdated and incomplete," commission spokesman Andrew Kotch wrote in an e-mail.

The commission is working with the analyst's office, committee staff and Gov. Jerry Brown's Department of Finance "to get the true facts understood," according to Kotch.

"And when they are we hope and expect that the Legislature will continue to support the CPUC's efforts to learn the lessons of the PG&E pipeline rupture in San Bruno and put California where it belongs – a national leader in safety regulation," Kotch wrote.

The commission's staff positions related to gas safety were mostly filled, but the other vacancies now are holding up additional gas safety hires that are "imperative," said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, whose district includes San Bruno.

"The issue for me is gas safety, and that’s why they need to come up with the plan (to fill vacancies) as quickly as possible, so we can move forward," Hill said.

The commission's past approach, which assumed utility companies would make safety their top priority, was "inherently misguided," according to the subcommittee staff report. After the San Bruno disaster, an independent review panel and the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the state ratchet up its oversight.

For its new approach, the commission is now requesting additional staff to improve inspections, risk assessment and enforcement of safety issues for gas pipelines, electrical lines, power plants and railroads.

Gordon, however, raised the question of whether the commission is the best agency to oversee safety, given that it trusted the utilities so much in the past.

"There's kind of a question, certainly in the minds of many in the public, having to do with, 'Is the Public Utilities Commission too cozy with the utilities? Do they have too close a relationship?' " Gordon said.

The commission is funded by surcharges on consumers, but the new positions would not require a rate increase, according to the agency.

The committee, though, wants to be cautious about creating permanent positions, Gordon said.

"We know at the end of the day, somebody pays for those, and more often than not, that's the ratepayer," he said.

While the commission demonstrated that more resources are needed for a more proactive approach to safety, it remains unclear whether that requires additional staff positions while many are vacant, the subcommittee staff concluded.

The agencies looking into the vacancy issue probably will report back to the Legislature next month, according to Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer.

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