San Onofre

By Amita Sharma
Apr 29, 2015

Sorrentino’s Pizza owner Patrick Quinn is tired of watching the energy bill at his San Diego restaurant go up each month.

“In 2011, 2012, May or June, the bill ran $1,390 or $1,400,” Quinn said. “This past year, it was running $2,230, $2,250.”

Quinn said he’s tried to cut his energy consumption by closing his Clairemont Mesa Boulevard restaurant from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. each day. He turned off his ovens. He even shut down the pilot lights. But he said his energy bill actually increased — by a dollar.

“What are you going to do?” he said. “We’re slaves to the utility industry.”

The San Diego businessman’s rhetoric is stronger than most, but other consumers and advocates in San Diego also are frustrated with utility companies and their regulators. In recent weeks, investigations have turned up evidence of private deal-making between Southern California Edison and some members of the California Public Utilities Commission. The utility owns most of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which had to shut down one year after faulty steam generators at the plant caused a small radioactive leak.

The utility and the regulator struck a deal on a settlement. The result: no investigation into the failure of the steam generators at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, and ratepayers will pay for most of the $4.7 billion settlement. But that settlement is being questioned, now that details have emerged about its origins.

Restaurant owner Quinn calls that settlement illegitimate because the Public Utilities Commission allowed it without a full investigation of who was responsible for the plant’s failure and who should be held accountable.

“Where do we find accountability?” Quinn said. “The steam generators — why did they fail? These are simple questions that should be asked.”

The questions have been asked, but answers have been slow to come.

‘I’m not here to answer your questions’

Last May, former PUC President Michael Peevey was still a powerful bureaucrat unaccustomed to being challenged at regulatory hearings.

But attorney Mike Aguirre wanted to know just how did the PUC reach a $4.7 billion settlement with little public input.

Aguirre, San Diego’s former city attorney, asked Peevey at a meeting how many times he had talked privately with executives from San Onofre’s majority owner, Southern California Edison. Peevey, a former Edison executive, wasn’t having it.

“I’m not here to answer your goddamn questions,” Peevey yelled from the Public Utilities Commission dais. “Now shut up! Shut up!”

Recently, Aguirre reflected on Peevey’s outburst.

“He really blew up and, of course, now we know why,” said Aguirre, who in November sued to have the settlement set aside.

Peevey stepped down from the PUC in December after the release of emails showing he maintained close contact with Pacific Gas and Electric executives following the 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people. In the emails, Peevey offered public relations counsel and discussed rate setting, among other topics.

The Poland conversation

One year before Peevey’s blowup, in 2013, he met with Southern California Edison executive Stephen Pickett at the opulent Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, Poland. There, they discussed a framework for a settlement agreement on San Onofre.

That Poland meeting came to light only this year, after state investigators found notes about San Onofre’s defective replacement steam generators on Hotel Bristol stationery during a search of Peevey’s home in January. PUC officials and utility executives are the target of federal and state probes for alleged inappropriate contact and possible influence-peddling.

Edison never reported the secret meeting to the PUC as required, until after U-T San Diego published a story about the seized notes.

The company explained the 23-month delay by characterizing the Poland conversation as an “update” on San Onofre that was “permissible and not reportable.” But the company goes on to say it now appears Pickett may have crossed into substantive communication.

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