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Is PG&E Responsible for San Bruno's Gas Line Fire?

San Bruno gas line fire

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric is back to being on California's bad side with this week's news that a PG&E-owned gas line exploded in San Bruno, damaging over 100 homes and killing three people. And some are already questioning whether PG&E could have prevented it.

According to the Bay Citizen, San Bruno residents living close to the site of the explosion told PG&E about natural gas leaks in the area nearly three weeks before the disaster. The Bay Citizen reports:

California Public Utilities Commission spokesman Andrew Kotch told The Bay Citizen that CPUC investigators had also been told by residents that a leak had been detected in the days leading up to the blast. "Obviously if there were leaks that is troubling, we will be looking into that as part of the investigation," Kotch said... Tim Gutierrez, another resident, told CBS 5 that he smelled a gas-like odor for several days before the accident. He said representatives of PG&E searched the neighborhood looking for a leak. "A little later they took off and that was it," said Gutierrez.

The utility is nothing if not controversial. It's a strong supporter of alternative energy, but it recently alienated locals by trying to push through Proposition 16, a measure that would have required two-thirds majority support from voters before local governments could create or grow municipal utilities. Even more recently, the utility pleased clean energy enthusiasts when it took a stand against an anti-global warming bill.

If the California Public Utilities Commission finds that PG&E is responsible for the fire, the utility claims that it will take full responsibility. We assume that PG&E will start taking reports of gas leaks more seriously regardless of the outcome. But hopefully, PG&E will also take the high road—and that means avoiding BP-style assurances of safety. An apology and promise to take safety more seriously will suffice.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.