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Deadly Priorities: Why Did PG&E Spend Millions on Politics, Instead of Pipelines?

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As the San Bruno community struggles to recover from the deadly PG&E pipeline blast and fire, many are asking why the California utility spent tens of millions of dollars on politics before they repaired pipelines that their own surveys said were crumbling beneath their customers' feet.

I drove to San Bruno yesterday with my baby daughter (our 9/11 service activity was to donate clothes to the fire victims). We visited with first responders, volunteers, and community residents putting their lives back together. The spirit in San Bruno was cooperation and concern - people are still looking for loved ones and survivors are in shock. There was also a growing concern for the next one: just as earthquake victims wonder about aftershocks, the PG&E blast victims wonder what other pipelines lie crumbling beneath their feet.

This is a terrible tragedy -- and it didn't have to happen. Even before the deadly PG&E pipeline blast ripped through the San Bruno community, killing at least 6 people, destroying dozens of homes, and rendering hundreds homeless, the utility knew that they had a potential problem because their own survey listed the San Francisco peninsula pipelines as "high risk" (PDF).

As the investigations begin, the prevailing question is why? Why did the pipeline burst? Why didn't the utility spend ratepayer money on fixing the high risk problem? Why did management decide to spend ratepayer dollars on political campaigns instead of pipeline repairs? Why set these deadly priorities? If the two decisions were not related -- why weren't they? And what will we do to make it right?

Here's what we know so far: residents reported smelling odors in the San Bruno community in the days before the blast. They called PG&E but nothing was detected. No one took the customer complaints up the chain of command to the bosses who had a report listing the San Francisco peninsula pipelines as "high risk." After the deadly blast, there was some denial by PG&E that the pipeline was even theirs; then denial that the pipeline was the one in the survey, but federal investigators (who released PG&E's survey) said the pipeline was PG&E's.

We know the utility had the money -- our money -- to fix the pipelines because public filings show that just last spring, PG&E chose to spend $45 million in ratepayer dollars in a failed bid to block public power. These are funds that could have been used to repair what the utility's own survey said was a high risk pipeline on the SF peninsula. So why make the decision for politics not pipelines? If the spending decisions were not related, why not? At the very least, PG&E should have a moratorium on political spending until they compensate the San Bruno victims and fix the pipelines.

Who knows what crumbling infrastructure lies beneath our sleeping children? Actually, many people do -- they pay surveyors to take a look. We actually know that our crumbling pipelines, roads, and bridges are ticking time bombs. That is why President Obama and Congressional Democrats have pushed to fund jobs that repair our roads, runways, and railways -- we can't have first rate American communities with third world American infrastructure.

Will we take this occasion to invest in rebuilding and to insist on ratepayer say on utility pay? Or will we continue with the status quo until the next explosion?

The San Bruno tragedy is a clarion call to rebuild America and insist on ratepayer say on utility pay. I think most taxpayers would reject deadly priorities that put politics over pipelines and choose repairs to the ground literally crumbling beneath our feet, and most ratepayers would choose crumbling infrastructure repairs over political campaigns. Wouldn't you?