SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A group of city officials, consumer advocates and a state lawmaker has launched a blistering attack on California regulators' decision to hire former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to oversee private settlement talks over a deadly pipeline explosion, calling the process an unfair backroom deal.
The California Public Utilities Commission announced Monday that Mitchell had been appointed to help energy regulators and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. reach a settlement over how much the utility should pay in connection with the San Bruno blast.
Eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed in the gas-fueled inferno that tore through the bedroom community of San Bruno on Sept 9, 2010, after one of PG&E's pipelines ruptured.
Attorneys from the cities of San Bruno and San Francisco, as well as the commission's own consumer advocacy branch, known as the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, said they were not consulted about Mitchell's appointment until days after the commission decided to hire him as a mediator and informed PG&E of the decision.
Over the past two years, the company has faced grueling public hearings over potential malfeasance leading up to the blast. Consumer groups said they feared that moving from a public process to closed-door negotiations chaired by Mitchell would favor PG&E and help the company whittle down possible fines that could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Why not finish the hearings?" said Karen Paull, a lawyer for the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. "Instead, we are being treated like mushrooms ... Feed them manure and keep them in the dark."
In a letter filed Wednesday, the groups said they don't question the talents of Mitchell — who brokered the 1998 Northern Ireland treaty and spent two years as President Obama's special Middle East envoy — but are concerned that he and his law firm previously have represented public utilities.
The firm, DLA Piper, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. PG&E did not immediately comment on the group's concerns but previously praised the news of Mitchell's hiring.
The commission did not respond to questions about how the decision was made to hire Mitchell, but Commissioner Mike Florio said he felt the move to inform PG&E first was not well thought out.
Florio, along with commission President Michael Peevey, is overseeing the legal case that had been intended to determine the level of fines. Any decision brokered by Mitchell will have to be considered by the full five-member commission.
"I think we handled this rather poorly. Announcing it before people were brought into it was not a good idea," Florio said in an interview.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.