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Fatal 2008 blast should have been 'wake-up call' for PG&E, reform group says [Updated]

September 10, 2010 |  4:14 pm

The massive explosion in San Bruno could have been avoided had Pacific Gas & Electric followed through on the promises it made after a 2008 fatal gas line explosion in a suburban community outside Sacramento, a utility reform group said Friday.

The gas line explosion two years ago in Rancho Cordova killed one person, injured five others and destroyed one home and severely damaged two others.

[Updated at 4:57 p.m.: In a statement to The Times, PG&E spokesman Andrew Souvall said, "It does everyone a disservice to point fingers before any investigation of the facts has even begun." He noted that the National Transportation Safety Board is on the scene and has jurisdiction over the investigation. Souvall said PG&E will fully comply with all investigations. "We will not engage in speculation," he said.]

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the incident probably was caused by the use of substandard pipe. A contributing factor was the two-hour-plus delay in the arrival on the scene of a PG&E crew that “was properly trained and equipped to identify and classify outdoor leaks and to begin response activities to ensure the safety of the residents and public,” states the NTSB report adopted May 18, 2010.

The 2008 incident should have served as a wake-up call to PG&E, said a spokesperson for the utility reform group TURN, which formed in the early 1970s as Toward Utility Rate Normalization.

The advocacy group said that among other things, PG&E pledged to improve its response to customer complaints about potential gas leaks. Some residents in San Bruno said they had complained  before Thursday’s blast that they smelled gas in the neighborhood.  The explosion killed at least four people and injured 52.

PG&E said it is investigating whether it had been alerted to a potential problem in the San Francisco-area neighborhood.

Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, said it appears the utility failed to live up to its pledge.

“In San Bruno, once again customers did the right thing and called PG&E when they smelled gas,” Toney said. “Had PG&E done the right thing in response, the explosion might not have occurred.”

-- Marc Lifsher