Pipeline hearings suspended for closed talks

GARANCE BURKE, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- A California judge on Monday approved a request to suspend public hearings and to hold closed-door negotiations on fines to be levied after a deadly natural gas pipeline explosion in a Northern California neighborhood.

The California Public Utilities Commission had been holding public hearings over the Sept. 9, 2010, blast that killed eight people, injured others and destroyed dozens of homes in the bedroom community of San Bruno.

On Friday, the commission's Consumer Protection and Safety Division filed a motion seeking a monthlong suspension of the public hearings over penalties to be levied against the pipeline's owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

CPUC Administrative Law Judge Mark Wetzell decided Monday to put one set of hearings on hold until Oct. 15 to allow PG&E to more quickly reach a settlement with other parties.

Democratic Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo and San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane had urged the judge to continue open hearings. Hill said the suspension would shield the talks from public scrutiny.

"This is turning into a backroom deal," Hill said. "We want a transparent, open discovery of evidence so that in the future public policy can be determined to prevent this from happening and that can't be done behind closed doors."

Hill and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier also have criticized a decision by the commission president to put himself in charge of a probe into whether PG&E should be fined for the explosion.

President Michael Peevey has led the commission since 2003 and faced criticism from federal investigators and consumer advocates about panel safety lapses during his tenure.

The commission has said in the past that any settlement with PG&E will require a vote of the five-member panel.

CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper described the request for closed-door talks as a "time-out to give the parties an opportunity to focus their time and attention on negotiations toward a stipulated outcome."

PG&E spokesman Todd Burke said company officials hope to reach a settlement that "will allow everyone involved to continue the healing process."

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, said the suspension should be "short and sweet."

"If it doesn't seem there is a good chance to resolve through a settlement," Spatt said, "then the Public Utilities Commission needs to get the hearings back on track and do it fast."


Associated Press writer Terence Chea contributed to this report.


Information from: San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, http://www.mercurynews.com