Former Sen. Mitchell to lead PG&E pipeline talks
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A former U.S. senator who helped negotiate a peace treaty in Northern Ireland has been appointed to help California energy regulators and Pacific Gas & Electric reach a settlement over a pipeline explosion that killed eight people, the two sides announced Monday.
The California Public Utilities Commission said former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Democrat, has agreed to mediate talks between PG&E and the commission's staff to determine how much the utility should pay in fines.
Representatives from the city of San Bruno, where the deadly explosion happened in September 2010, and from a ratepayer advocacy group also will participate in the discussions, which are aimed at resolving the safety steps PG&E must take to prevent future pipeline accidents.
The commission's safety division last week received permission from two California judges to temporarily suspend the public hearings it has held over the last two years to determine liability for the blast, which also destroyed dozens of homes.
The commission's president, Michael Peevey, said holding closed-door negotiations could lead to a quicker settlement, although surviving victims of the San Bruno explosion and relatives of those killed said they favored an open process.
"We are confident Sen. Mitchell can help achieve a solution that will resolve these cases sooner rather than later, bring justice to the good people of San Bruno, and move California forward to our goal of a much safer natural gas system," Peevey said.
But a consumer advocacy group criticized Mitchell's appointment as mediator.
"A mediator should be chosen by the parties, not imposed by the CPUC," said Mark Toney, the executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group,
"Without any input from consumer advocates or other parties to the proceeding, this appears to be a backroom deal that could be a set up for a worse backroom deal," said Toney. "The commission has turned a deaf ear to the public's demands for transparency."
Federal and state investigators have blamed PG&E for the explosion, which occurred when an underground pipeline ruptured at the site of a decades-old faulty weld, sparking a gas-fueled fire.
PG&E could face hundreds of millions of dollars in possible state fines. Any settlement overseen by Mitchell would be in addition to a trust fund the company created to pay up to $70 million to help the city cover the cost of rebuilding, a $100 million fund to support emergency needs in the aftermath of the accident and millions more resulting from residents' lawsuits.
In addition to brokering the 1998 Northern Ireland treaty, Mitchell led an investigation during 2006 and 2007 into the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. He also spent two years as President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy before resigning the post last year.
"Sen. Mitchell has a distinguished career, including experience presiding over many complex negotiations," Tom Bottorff, PG&E's senior vice president of regulatory affair, said in a statement. "We are committed to working with Sen. Mitchell and the commission to achieve a fair and comprehensive settlement of these issues."
PG&E is expected to foot the bill for hiring Mitchell and his Washington law firm, but without passing the cost onto its customers, the commission said.