MONTEREY — As Pacific Gas & Electric prepares for a criminal trial in March for a rash of pipeline explosions, a woman has filed suit claiming she was injured when a PG&E work crew accidentally blew up a house in Carmel two years ago.
On March 23, 2014, according to an investigation requested by PG&E, a work crew drilled into what they believed was an empty steel gas pipeline, unaware that a working plastic gas line was inside of it. The rupture caused a leak and gas flowed back into an unoccupied house where a pilot light ignited it in a fiery explosion. It leveled the little cottage and damaged three nearby homes.
No injuries were reported at the time of the incident, but resident Bernice Hanczak claims she was severely injured in the blast. In her complaint, filed Feb. 16 in Monterey Superior Court, she states that she was walking past the side of the home near Guadalupe and Third streets when it exploded “propelling Plaintiff Bernice Hanczak forward by the blast from the explosion and causing serious injury.”
The complaint is just one small part of a much larger legal mess PG&E is in due to exploding pipelines. Besides the explosion in Carmel, workers accidentally punctured in Castro Valley in 2010, Morgan Hill and Milpitas in 2012, and Mountain View in 2013. Each explosion was apparently due to the company’s poor record keeping and all of them occurred after the horrific San Bruno explosion on Sept. 9, 2010 that killed eight people and injured 66 others. Last year, PG&E was fined $1.6 billion for the Sun Bruno explosion, caused by a defectively welded seam in a gas pipeline that ruptured after the pipeline segment had been incorrectly recorded by PG&E as seamless.
The CPUC initially fined PG&E $10.85 million for the Carmel explosion and began hearings to determine if PG&E violated laws regarding its record keeping and if further fines were warranted.
“This issue is very concerning; it’s a strong indication that, while PG&E has been making progress in upgrading their gas system, the progress is still very uneven,” said Commissioner Michael Picker in a CPUC press release that announced the fine back in 2014. “PG&E is a very large operation, but we at the CPUC need to be able to assure California residents that every part of PG&E’s operation is as safe as it can be. The staff actions here – our form of a prosecutorial indictment – indicate that PG&E needs to do more.”
PG&E is also facing a federal criminal trial related to its record keeping. That trial is scheduled to start March 22 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Before the start of a four-day CPUC hearing in San Francisco on Jan. 19, part of the ongoing determination of a fine, Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett released a statement to the press.
“It was a miracle nobody was killed, let alone hurt, but PG&E can’t rely on miracles to protect public safety,” it read in part, and suggested that PG&E was stonewalling the investigation of its faulty records.
“We are demanding major reforms of PG&E, including its record keeping practices, so that no more lives are risked by the ticking time bombs beneath our communities,” Burnett said.
According to Burnett and Carmel Director Public Safety Mike Calhoun, who also issued a statement, a former PG&E employee named Leslie McNiece told city officials that the company had destroyed records, thrown others away, disregarded suggestions to fix the problem and instead hid evidence showing its negligence.
“The information provided by Ms. McNiece … was deeply concerning to us and should be to the CPUC, public safety officials and the public at large,” Calhoun said. “Since the 2014 Carmel explosion, pipeline problems persist and seem to be a regular occurrence in our city. Six months after the Carmel explosion, which damaged a building, another gas leak threatened downtown Carmel when construction crews hit a pipe outside a hotel. A 20-foot gas cloud lingered dangerously in front of several properties for more than 20 minutes before PG&E crews finally arrived to stop the flow.”
Hanczak is being represented by Angelo Campano of the Campano Law Group in Palmdale, Calif. He did not return phone calls for comment. PG&E provides power to about 16 million people in Northern and Central California, and also had little to say regarding the latest complaint.
“The safety of our customers, employees and the communities we serve is always our top priority. We have just received the complaint and we are reviewing it,” PG&E spokesman Nick Stimmel said.