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Woman Says PG&E Blast Knocked Her Down

MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) - As Pacific Gas & Electric prepares for a criminal trial in March for a rash of pipeline explosions, a woman in Carmel-by-the-Sea has sued the company, claiming she was injured when a PG&E work crew accidentally blew up a house two years ago.

On March 23, 2014, according to an investigation requested by PG&E, a work crew drilled into what they believed was an empty steel gas pipeline, unaware that a working plastic gas line was inside it.

The rupture caused a leak and gas flowed back into an unoccupied house where a pilot light ignited it in a fiery explosion. It leveled the little cottage and damaged three nearby homes.

No injuries were reported at the time, but now Bernice Hanczak says she was severely injured in the blast.

In a Feb. 16 lawsuit in Monterey County Court, Hanczak says she was walking by the home near Guadalupe and Third streets when it exploded, "propelling (her) forward by the blast from the explosion and causing serious injury." She does not detail the nature or extent of her injuries in the lawsuit, which is just a small part of a much larger legal mess PG&E faces from exploding pipelines.

Besides the explosion in Carmel, workers accidentally punctured lines in Castro Valley in 2010, in Morgan Hill and Milpitas in 2012, and in Mountain View in 2013.

Each explosion has been blamed on PG&E's poor-record keeping, and all of them occurred after the horrific San Bruno explosion on Sept. 9, 2010 that leveled a neighborhood, killed eight people and injured 66 others.

California last year fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the Sun Bruno explosion, caused by a defectively welded seam in a pipeline that ruptured after PG&E had incorrectly recorded the pipeline segment as seamless.

The California Public Utilities Commission initially fined PG&E $10.9 million for the Carmel explosion, and began hearings to determine if PG&E violated record-keeping laws and whether more fines were warranted.

In announcing the $10.9 million fine in 2014, the CPUC said the Carmel explosion was "a strong indication that while PG&E has been making progress in upgrading their gas system, the progress is still very uneven."

"PG&E is a very large operation, but we at the CPUC need to be able to assure California residents that every part of PG&E's operation is as safe as it can be. The staff actions here - our form of a prosecutorial indictment - indicate that PG&E needs to do more," CPUC Commissioner Michael Picker said in the 2014 statement.

Before a four-day CPUC hearing on the fine began in San Francisco on Jan. 19, Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett said, "It was a miracle nobody was killed, let alone hurt, but PG&E can't rely on miracles to protect public safety."

Burnett suggested in that statement that PG&E was stonewalling the investigation of its record-keeping.

"We are demanding major reforms of PG&E, including its record-keeping practices, so that no more lives are risked by the ticking time bombs beneath our communities," Burnett said.

According to Burnett and Carmel Public Safety Director Mike Calhoun, who also issued a statement, a former PG&E employee named Leslie McNiece told city officials that the company had destroyed records, thrown others away, disregarded suggestions to fix the problem and hid evidence showing its negligence.

"The information provided by Ms. McNiece ... was deeply concerning to us and should be to the CPUC, public safety officials and the public at large," Calhoun said. "Since the 2014 Carmel explosion, pipeline problems persist and seem to be a regular occurrence in our city.

"Six months after the Carmel explosion, which damaged a building, another gas leak threatened downtown Carmel when construction crews hit a pipe outside a hotel. A 20-foot gas cloud lingered dangerously in front of several properties for more than 20 minutes before PG&E crews finally arrived to stop the flow."

Hanczak seeks punitive damages for three counts of negligence, strict liability for ultrahazardous activity, pain and suffering and medical expenses.

She is represented by Angelo Campano of Palmdale, who did not respond to requests for comment.

PG&E provides power to about 16 million people in Northern and Central California, and had little to say on the latest complaint.

"The safety of our customers, employees and the communities we serve is always our top priority. We have just received the complaint and we are reviewing it," PG&E spokesman Nick Stimmel said.

PG&E's federal criminal trial on its record-keeping is set for March 22 in San Francisco.

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