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Tuesday, Aug 20 2013 07:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: PUC dropped the ball on PG&E plant's implosion safety check

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    As the dust clears, the two remaining towers of the old Kern Power Plant are seen lying on their sides after the implosion knocked them to the ground at Coffee Road and Rosedale Highway early Saturday morning.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A Cleveland Wrecking Co. excavator sits to the right of the two demolished towers of the old Pacific Gas & Electric steam power plant on Aug. 5 after the implosion knocked them to the ground early Aug. 3.

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By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

A good friend who worked with the California Public Utilities Commission for many years once explained that agency's function to me like this:

Imagine utilities, such as PG&E, are great white sharks and we, the public, are seals.

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Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

The PUC is supposed to be like a dolphin, keeping the sharks from chomping us to death.

Well, my friend said, not only has the PUC abandoned its good dolphin duties, it has tied a pork chop to our ankles.

We are utility chum.

That was never more apparent to me than when I read John Cox's story in Sunday's Californian about how the PUC was supposed to have developed greater oversight of PG&E's demolition projects, specifically because of fatalities in past PG&E demolitions -- one at the Bakersfield plant itself.

The oversight was supposed to have consisted of the PUC requiring PG&E to hire an expert, outside company to background demolition contractors and thoroughly review their blast plans. Stuff that PG&E has said it doesn't have the expertise to do.

According to PG&E, that oversight program was only in some kind of "pilot" phase when it scheduled its Aug. 3 demolition of the Bakersfield plant with the PUC's blessing.

The implosion sent shrapnel into a crowd of onlookers. One man may yet lose his leg.

There's no reason to have gone forward with the Bakersfield demolition until after it had gone through all the safety checks outlined in the "contractor safety program" instituted by the PUC.

And, clearly the Bakersfield implosion did not go through those safety checks. In fact, it's unclear what safety checks it did go through.

One of the subcontractors on the Bakersfield job, Alpha Explosives, had its license expire three days before the blast. And the subcontractor actually in charge of lighting the fuse, Demtech Inc., didn't have the permit for the job that the Kern County Sheriff's Office believed it needed.

And, oh yeah, the main contractor Cleveland Wrecking Co., is the same company hired by PG&E to demolish a tank at the Bakersfield plant that resulted in a death in June 2012.

An outside expert, as described in the contractor safety program, would have likely raised an eyebrow over those issues alone.

Who knows what such an expert would have said about Demtech's blast plan?

It was flat out negligent for the PUC not to have required this demolition to have gone through the new safety protocol.

I say there's no reason to have gone forward with the implosion, except for the fact that the PUC is an absolute lapdog toward PG&E.

The PUC has a long history of acquiescing to the very utilities it's supposed to hold accountable.

In fact, a confidential report obtained earlier this year by the news site Greenwire says the PUC does not make safety a top priority, is overly cozy with the companies it regulates and lacks accountability.

The report was commissioned by the PUC to figure out how it could instill a safety-focused culture within the agency.

The report quotes PUC workers and managers as saying utility representatives have "too much access to the PUC building, documents and personnel and see too little in terms of fines and consequences to view the PUC as a serious regulator."

No doubt.

After PG&E killed eight people when one of its aging gas lines blew up a San Bruno neighborhood in 2010, an initial punishment floated by the PUC was to have the utility pay $2.25 billion in repairs and improvements to its gas lines.

No fine.

It was only after the city of San Bruno caused a ruckus demanding internal emails and documents that the PUC tacked on a proposed $300 million fine last month. That is expected to be finalized later this year.

We'll have to wait and see what the PUC's reaction is to the bungled Bakersfield implosion.

Frankly, I hold out little hope.

The agency was already under extreme heat because of San Bruno (the Legislature "zeroed out" the PUC's $1.4 billion budget forcing it to justify every expenditure, among other changes).

And still it didn't force PG&E to run the Bakersfield implosion through its new safety protocols.

Like my friend told me, to the PUC, we're just so many pork chops.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com.

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