Specialist Lowers the Boom on PG&E

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After the deadly explosion in San Bruno, Pacific Gas & Electric hired a specialist to help fix the poor data system that contributed to the disaster, then fired him when he complained about PG&E’s plan to increase rates and just superficially fix the problems, the man claims in court.
     Christopher Surbey sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Superior Court, alleging retaliation and wrongful termination.
     Eight people died, 58 were injured and a neighborhood was leveled when a 30-inch PG&E gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, on Sept. 9, 2010.
     “The explosion and subsequent investigation revealed that, among other serious oversights, PG&E was unaware of vital information about the pipe because of its outdated information systems and error-ridden data,” Surbey says in the complaint.
     “Information about the pipe should have been available at the click of a mouse as part of any industry-standard pipeline GIS [geographic information systems] implementation. PG&E’s system limitations resulted in a lack of proper maintenance, and caused delays in pinpointing the location of the break, prolonging the release of gas and fueling the fire.”
     PG&E has been aware for years “that its error-ridden GIS data, its negligent storage, its failure to update or confirm records and maps, and its outdated GIS technology has created a dangerously defective GIS implementation at PG&E,” Surbey says in the complaint.
     After the San Bruno disaster, PG&E hired Surbey, who is a specialist in GIS for gas and electric utilities, he says.
     “When PG&E recruited plaintiff, it had the largest GIS project in North America for the next five years but few, if any, of its project managers had GIS knowledge,” according to the complaint. “An independent panel of experts commissioned by the PUC [Public Utilities Commission] issued a report in June 2011 about PG&E’s flawed response plans to the San Bruno disaster. One of those flaws was that PG&E was understaffed, undertrained, and too generalist; it did not employ enough senior people with technical backgrounds and experience in gas systems especially.”
     Surbey worked for PG&E managing deployment of GIS programs and claims he had early success in upgrading software. He began to take on new roles and eventually was asked to assist PG&E’s regulatory and legal affairs departments with its General Rate Case submission to the PUC for approval of new GIS projects, he says.
     “During this process, Surbey became increasingly concerned about the efficacy of the new plan, PG&E’s grossly negligent implementation of the old plan, and ultimately that the regulatory affairs and legal affairs departments were using the information he was providing to potentially mislead the PUC, the general public, and the shareholders of the company,” Surbey says in the complaint.
     He claims he reported to PG&E’s regulator and legal affairs that “the lofty plans justifying the rate cases were completely overblown and that they proposed technically impossible solutions to a serious problem. Eric Lichtblau told Surbey, ‘Well, that’s how we get funded,'” the complaint states. [The complaint does not identify Lichtblau’s position.]
     “Surbey, along with most employees working on GIS, knew that the $85 million Base GIS program approved in 2009 could not deliver a fully functioning overhaul of PG&E’s GIS, which was what PG&E was promising the public, the PUC, and PG&E shareholders,” the complaint states.
     Surbey says he came to believe that PG&E was trying to get millions of dollars in rate increases from the PUC without fixing its serious data problems.
     “Surbey became aware that while he was determined to deploy industry-leading GIS systems crucial to safety, PG&E was simply using the need for a GIS overhaul to request more money from the PUC with no intention of actually delivering an overhaul, instead spending the money elsewhere in a haphazard fashion,” he says in the complaint.
     After Surbey explained his objections to PG&E, he says, he was denied transfers and promotions. PG&E employees and consultants excluded him from budget discussions and negotiations and then blamed him when problems arose, he claims.
     PG&E then “embarked upon a systematic campaign to destroy Surbey’s career in retaliation for his complaints about its deceitful practices. This effort consisted of defamation of Surbey to potential GIS employers,” Surbey says. “In each case, Surbey interviewed with the company and was promised a position, then the potential employer – a PG&E consultant – determined the risk was too great after learning Surbey had been blacklisted by PG&E.”
     Surbey says his job at PG&E was soon “eliminated in a one-person layoff.”
     He adds: “After terminating his employment, defendants have made false assertions of fact concerning Surbey to other potential employers.”
     He seeks punitive damages for retaliation and wrongful termination.
     He is represented by Dow Patton with Smith Patton.

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