SAN FRANCISCO -- After years of scathing criticism over failures to make sure PG&E natural gas pipelines don't blow up and passengers can get out of burning limousines, a state agency on Thursday adopted a "safety-first" policy.
The California Public Utilities Commission's new "safety policy statement" lacks specifics but is intended to create accountability and "oversight of safety in the industries we regulate," said its author, Commissioner Michael Picker on Thursday. The commission lacks "cohesion and clarity" in how it protects the public.
PUC critics were immediately skeptical Thursday, recalling the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion in which eight people died and the deaths of five nurses last year in limousine fire on the San Mateo Bridge.
"It's very ironic. Now they're adopting a safety culture?" said San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane. "Maybe it is a good thing, but it should have happened a long time ago."
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he doubted the PUC's ability to follow through.
"Finally, nearly four years after eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed in San Bruno, (PUC President) Michael Peevey's Commission voted to have a safety policy," he said in a news release.
"The real question, however, is not whether the PUC can write a safety policy statement, but whether it can act upon it. I am not confident that the PUC will until it gets a new president," Hill said.
A lawyer for a utility watchdog group was also critical.
"The (PUC) clearly has a poor safety record, and it has been undermined by the tragedies of the past few years," said Thomas Long of the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network. He called on the commission to allow utilities to "spend money wisely" on safety and "not throw it down the rat hole. There has to be a balance. It has to be done in a cost effective manner."
A state audit of the PUC division that oversees buses, limousines and airport shuttles ripped its practices last month, stating that its investigators are not trained to conduct investigations, take too long to do their work and issue small fines.
San Bruno is suing the commission over the 2010 PG&E explosion, claiming the utility is withholding embarrassing documents requested under the Public Records Act. Hill has accused the PUC of conducting a cover-up.
The new policy is short on specifics.
Picker said it is designed to create a change in the PUC's culture where safety becomes its top priority, not to lay out the exact ways to achieve that goal.
"Everybody at the PUC has to participate," he said. "This is beyond simple compliance. It is very broad."
The policy states, "we are striving to achieve a goal of zero accidents and injuries across all the utilities and businesses we regulate."
"That's a very high level goal," Picker said, "but it is better to have a high level ceiling."
In a brief interview following approval of the plan, Picker said he found safety lacking after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the commission in January.
"It's very heavy on regulations," he said. "It's a very tradition-bound organization. It is very hard to change."
Follow Thomas Peele on Twitter @thomas_peele