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Michael Hiltzik: PG&E lives down to its reputation

September 18, 2010 |  8:39 pm

If there's a saving grace for Southern Californians in following the dismal story of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., it's that PG&E isn't our utility, thank goodness. As my Sunday column observes, that burden falls on the unfortunate citizens of Central and Northern California.

It wasn't our utilities that declared bankruptcy in 2001 because they didn't like the terms they were offered for a taxpayer bailout after the breakdown of the electrical deregulation scheme (concocted in part by, yes, PG&E). It wasn't our utilities that were accused of poisoning the water of Inland Empire communities by dumping potentially carcinogenic chemicals over three decades, finally settling claims involving more than 1,800 people (including the "Erin Brockovich" cases) for nearly $648 million.

And is wasn't our utilities that redefined the term "corporate cynicism" by financing an initiative campaign to write monopoly status for themselves into the state constitution. An attack on communities across the entire state by a regulated corporation, the Proposition 16 campaign is unforgivable.

The nine outside PG&E directors who served a full year received average compensation of nearly $190,000 in 2009 to preside over this train wreck and evidently to give its engineer, CEO Peter Darbee, free rein. I wonder what the going price will be this year for what must rank as one of the worst, or at least most inattentive, boards in the country.

The column begins below.

Peter Darbee, the outstandingly complacent chief executive of PG&E Corp., has long made it a talking point that safety is his No. 1 concern.

"Ensuring the safety of our employees and the public" is "our most important priority," he wrote in the company's 2009 "corporate responsibility report."

But PG&E, the state's largest utility company, makes a habit of leaving things at the talking-point stage. The grim harvest of its failure to supplement lip service with action is currently visible in the devastated families and homes of San Bruno. That's the Bay Area community where a natural gas pipeline, the maintenance of which is indisputably PG&E's responsibility, blew up Sept. 9.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik