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Sunday
Nov272011

POLITICS: California Public Utilities Commission, secrecy law, public barred from obtaining government records regarding accidents, investigations, safety, etc....  

* San Francisco Chronicle (Bloomberg):  "Law allows state PUC to keep utilities data secret" - From the Chronicle:

   Californians concerned about dangerous pipelines running underneath their neighborhoods are barred from obtaining government records about them by a 60-year-old state law backed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and other utilities, a Chronicle investigation shows.

   The vast majority of documents at the California Public Utilities Commission are off-limits to the public under the state law, and a related agency regulation, including investigation reports on natural-gas pipeline accidents and safety audits of companies like PG&E. "Everything is secret unless it is declared otherwise," said Frank Lindh, general counsel for the five-member utilities commission since 2008 and before that a lawyer for PG&E.

   In most other states, such documents are routinely available. But California's law - one of the strictest in the nation - requires a vote of the Public Utilities Commission for an outsider to see unreleased paperwork. Records show that the panel consults with utilities first.

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   Only a handful of utilities commissions in other states - Alabama, Maine, Missouri, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wyoming - have similar power to withhold documents from the public, according to a Chronicle survey of regulatory agencies nationwide. Other California state agencies and local governments don't have that authority. They are required by a state open records law to presume in most cases that official records are public.

   The secrecy statute was passed in 1951, along with a provision prohibiting the use of Public Utilities Commission investigation records in civil lawsuits. The commission also passed its own rule in the mid-1950s prohibiting release of documents, like accident reports, produced by commission staff.

   Terry Francke, an expert on government secrecy in the state, said the commission had "extraordinary" leeway to keep documents secret. "It doesn't appear to serve any public purpose," said Francke, general counsel of the nonprofit advocacy group Californians Aware. "It is simply protective of the industry."

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   Some utilities commissions in other states post pipeline accident investigation reports and inspections on a website after they are completed. In California, however, accident investigation reports are posted only if the Public Utilities Commission seeks punitive action against a company - something that has happened only once for a gas-related violation, a fatal explosion in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County) in 2008.

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   Even prosecutors and federal agencies have been forced to jump through hoops to obtain commission records.

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   The secrecy laws have survived several attempts to repeal them, including a bid seven years ago by then-state Sen. Debra Bowen, now California's secretary of state. "Utilities were really strongly opposing it," Bowen said.

   Utility lobbyists made sure that when Bowen's bill got to the Assembly in 2004, it required nothing more than a utilities commission study of the agency's confidentiality practices, records show. Bowen said she doubted the study would accomplish much, and she was right. The commission made only a few changes in the way electricity pricing records are redacted. The rules governing release of pipeline safety records remained the same................