PG&E Continues its “Green” Makeover

Some things in politics just take your breath away and leave you shaking your head. The PG&E campaign is one of them. Actually in some ways, Target and PG&E are using the same script. If these were candidates, you’d be thinking, that they suddenly found environmentalism.

Theresa Francis wrote to the Davis Enterprise:

I’m going to open a Hummer dealership in a giant LEED building; that way I can help save the environment.

Bob Dunning of all people writes:

would we allow a strip joint on the site just because it was housed in an award-winning building?

(Personally I think that Bob just wants a strip joint, but that’s just me).

PG&E is using the same play book. First, they use the No on Measure X campaign to tell us that a vote for No on H & I is just like a vote for No on X. Now they are leafletting the town (or at least my residence) with a door hanger that pronounced them the guardians of the environmental order and SMUD as the evil polluters.

Look I can understand them wanting to hold onto their natural monopolistic market share and that they hate it when competition comes along, but good gosh, give us at least some credit for having some intelligence. Just because you call yourself environmentally friendly doesn’t mean that you are.

This is a company that built a nuclear power plant on an earthquake fault and that has been cited for numerous unauthorized releases of radioactive waste.

“Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has agreed to pay $96,000 in penalties for losing track of radioactive spent fuel at its defunct Humboldt Bay nuclear power plant. (12/05)”

“Facing fines of $25 million per day for the last 15 years, PG&E, owner of Diablo Canyon, faces a make-or-break ruling in June when the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control board decides whether to slap a cease-and-desist order on the plant for its thermal pollution and resultant marine environment kill-off — allegations that PG&E denies. That could be on top of the $14 million PG&E was fined by the state and federal governments in a related case for withholding evidence of pollution. The utility is currently in negotiations with the board over the case that could include a potential trade of some of the 13,000 acres (including 10 miles of coastline) surrounding the plant. PG&E’s customers, however, have paid for that land over the years and no one can explain how a trade of ratepayers-to-public ownership can work. (5/22/2000)”

The San Francisco Guardian reports:

In 1997 PG&E was tried and convicted in criminal court for endangering the lives and property of gold country residents by failing to trim tree branches near electrical wires frequently enough to prevent major fires. Evidence showed that PG&E executives had diverted tree-trimming money to fatten profits and salaries of top corporate executives.

The story of the company’s poisoning of community water supplies in Hinkley became a major Hollywood movie called Erin Brockovich, and a similar environmental disaster is still underway just south of San Francisco. Meanwhile, residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point district in San Francisco are suffering from alarmingly high rates of asthma and other illnesses that they link to PG&E’s dirty power plant in the neighborhood (see “Poison Power,” 1/28/98). In addition, the nearby Potrero power plant, which PG&E sold to Mirant Corp. in 1998, is scheduled for expansion.

PG&E stole nearly $200,000 from San Francisco by illegally running its power lines to the Presidio, according to a 1995 lawsuit the city filed against the company. Indeed, PG&E’s service to San Francisco residents is illegal, according to the terms of the 1913 Raker Act, which requires the city to operate a public power system. The company’s monopoly has led to decades of structural corruption at City Hall (see “How PG&E Wires the City,” page 26).

In 1998 a major blackout hit the city – leaving nearly half a million San Francisco residents without electricity (see “Still in the Dark,” 12/16/98). Officials determined that a failure to make a key backup safety check at a San Mateo substation caused the outage. For several years the company had been cutting back on maintenance staff to fatten profits.

In 2001, after lobbying for the 1996 bill that deregulated part of the state’s electricity industry, PG&E shuffled off more than $600 million in profits to its holding company, gave its top brass $50 million in bonuses and raises, and declared bankruptcy. Since spring 2001, rates have soared 40 percent and customer service for everything from hook-ups to billing problems has worsened (see “Feeling the Crunch,” 9/4/02).

Under its proposed plan to get out of bankruptcy, PG&E wants to free itself of the last vestiges of state regulation while at the same time making a very anti-free market demand: ratepayers must protect its shareholders and CEOs from any potential future losses (see “Competing Energy Visions,” page 30).

PG&E has a long record of harassing internal whistle-blowers and reporters who dare to take on the giant company.

Whistle Blowers Beware

Also from that article in the Guardian:

Silencing critics

Although PG&E likes to insist it is a tolerant and responsible company, it has a long history of retaliating against any employee who blows the whistle on its irresponsible practices.

In the 1997 Nevada County fire case, one of the prosecution’s star witnesses was Jim Sprecher, a PG&E engineer who had written a report concluding that the company was letting trees go untrimmed for too long and jeopardizing public safety. Instead of heeding Sprecher’s concerns, the company demoted him, relegating him to an unimportant job and ostracizing him socially, he testified.

He also testified that the report mysteriously disappeared from his unlocked filing cabinet at work at some point between 1993 and late 1996, when he was contacted by Nevada County prosecutors (see “Vanishing Report,” 5/21/97). The report’s recommendation to increase spending on tree trimming was ignored by PG&E higher-ups.

At PG&E’s April 1998 shareholders meeting, Neil Aiken, a shift foreperson at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, stood up and told shareholders about safety problems that came from cost cutting at the plant. He told the audience he came forward only in desperation, because he had exhausted all possible routes of solving the problem within the company. He also released a report detailing the safety issues called “Going Critical” (see “Nuclear Leak,” 4/22/98).

That year PG&E executives forced Aiken to undergo psychiatric evaluation. He was locked out of the plant and forced off his job after 24 years (see “Plugging the Leak,” 11/18/98). The Project on Liberty and the Workplace took up his case, and the U.S. Department of Labor found PG&E guilty of retaliation in November 1999 (see “PG&E Fires Whistleblower,” 4/5/00).

PG&E also has a history of blackballing reporters who challenge the utility. Energy writer J.A. Savage sued PG&E in 1988, charging that the company had gotten her fired from two jobs because she had once worked for an antinuclear group and had written for the Bay Guardian. She settled the suit for an undisclosed sum in 1995 after the state Court of Appeals found that her allegations had enough merit to go to trial (see “Reporter Beats PG&E,” 11/8/95).

“PG&E wields considerable power over the press covering its activities,” Judge Williams Newsom wrote in a 1993 appeals court opinion dealing with the question of whether PG&E should be able to blacklist reporters who work for the Bay Guardian. “In the case of a public utility enjoying such extensive monopolistic authority … there is an important public interest in assuring the freedom of the press in reporting on matters lying within the exercise of its franchise.”

PG&E has used its formidable power to undermine that constitutionally protected freedom. The haze of P.R. the company generates regarding its operations has proved effective in protecting the utility’s empire – at the direct expense of the public’s financial interests, safety, and health.

Campaign manipulations are one thing, outrights lies are another. PG&E is about as environmentally friendly as the Bush administration. Yolo County voters should not get sold down the river on this.

—Doug Paul Davis reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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