On Tuesday, state utility regulators will hold the first in a series of public meetings about overhauling the way they regulate natural gas pipeline operators. The first meeting takes place in San Bruno, seven months after a PG&E pipeline exploded there, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. Reporter: Tara Siler
This week, state utility regulators will hold the first in a series of meetings to hear public input about overhauling the way they regulate natural gas pipeline operators. The first meeting takes place in San Bruno, south of San Francisco, seven months after a Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline exploded there. The explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
One of those homes was 1110 Glenview Drive. If you type that address into Google maps you'll see a modest, well-kept, sage-green home with a white car parked in the driveway. But as Kris O'Neil will tell you, it's an old photo.
"I look at it sometimes, I do," said O'Neil, standing with her husband Gene in front of their property. Lush green grass and wildflowers help mask the devastation where their house once stood.
"It was a great house," said Gene O'Neil. "We were happy here. We had two cats, two kids -- a nice regular life."
The O'Neil's life has been anything but regular since a gas pipeline explosion burned their home to the ground last September. A federal investigation into the explosion is still underway, but the 56-year-old pipe was riddled with faulty welds. Gas fueled the inferno for some 90 minutes because there was no automatic shut off valve.
The O'Neil's cats didn't stand a chance -- they were both killed in the fire. The O'Neil's 23-year-old twin daughters both suffered burns on their arms from the heat of the fireball, and one will wear compression bandages for the next year.
"She says now she won't be able to wear a strapless wedding gown whenever she gets married," O'Neil said. "Which hopefully won't be for a long time because she's only 23."
Aside from worrying about her daughter, Kris O'Neil now spends hours every day itemizing her family's belongings for insurance and PG&E.
"They're going to get an itemization of absolutely everything I owned. Q-tips, toilet paper, cat litter. They're going to get it all," said O'Neil. "It's torture, it's mental torture."
Like many of their neighbors the O'Neil family is in counseling. And after seven months they've come to a big decision.
"We decided we're not moving back, we're going to sell," said O'Neil.
The O'Neils say they couldn't bear to be reminded of their neighbors who didn't escape the fire. So they're taking advantage of a program set up by PG&E to buyout homeowners or pay for rebuilding their houses.
From his initial meeting Gene O'Neil says it seems like the company wants to do the right thing. But the O'Neils are still adamant that someone at PG&E be held accountable for the disaster.
"Somebody should go to jail, somebody should lose their job," he said. "I know so many people that work for PG&E and they're hard workers and they risk their lives climbing these poles in storms so you're lights will go on. But on the flip side you have the people running this company. They knew this was a bad pipe -- maybe not at this spot -- but up the line they knew, and they knew how old they were, and they don't care."
A PG&E spokesman noted that the investigation of the explosion is still underway, but that the company is already trying to incorporate lessons learned from the disaster, like installing more automatic shut-off valves.
In San Bruno, PG&E is facing more than 60 lawsuits by residents like the O’Neils and neighbor Tina Pellegrini.
Pellegrini's new home will be rebuilt kitty-corner to the O'Neils property.
"Let's see, let me show you," said Pellegrini, flipping through architecture plans for her new home. "This is the front, as I said we wanted a house that was different from what we had. This is basically our dream house."
Pellegrini says this should be an exciting project, but any enthusiasm is swamped by the emotional trauma of starting over.
"There is so much to deal with when you lose absolutely everything," said Pelligrini. "And not only are you trying to live a life, but you're trying to rebuild and restore and replace and it's been horrible."
Pellegrini’s family escaped the fire with no physical injuries. But she's in counseling and she becomes visibly agitated when the topic turns to PG&E. Pellegrini also reserves some anger for the California Public Utilities Commission.
"The CPUC should have been monitoring PG&E a lot more closely," said Pelligrini. "That was their job. They had gotten money twice for that line to do fixes, upgrades, whatever their little project was. They didn’t do anything and CPUC never came back and said 'Hey, what did you do?'"
There's currently an independent review underway of the CPUC's internal workings. The agency's executive director Paul Clanon points out there were many technical audits of PG&E's operations over the years.
"There was an explosion of this pipeline system," said Clanon. "Eight people were killed, the whole neighborhood was devastated. Nobody who is involved in that can afford to think that what we were doing was sufficient -- it clearly
San Bruno Vice Mayor Michael Salazar says a majority of the residents are thinking of rebuilding here, but he understands if they choose to move on.
"We talk a lot about the statistics of homes lost and lives lost and we talk about regulations and fines and regulating pressures, but really when you come up here and see these homes you remember that there is a face to the tragedy and it's not something we can resolve easily."