Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Peoples Gas saga shows need to reform PSC

Even after slapping a natural gas utility with a hefty fine over safety violations and fraud, the Florida Public Service Commission still failed in its obligation to protect consumers. When a former Peoples Gas employee blew the whistle on faulty record-keeping of pipeline inspections, the PSC — which had failed to find the wrongdoing — tap-danced around the allegations before ultimately taking credit for uncovering them. The public deserves more honesty, tougher oversight and a higher standard of service.

Pam Carollo was a meter reader and inspector for Peoples Gas from 2007-12 who noticed large gaps in the records of pipe inspections. She handled a type of inspection that ensures pipes aren't corroding, which could cause hazardous gas leaks. Although no leaks ever ignited, Carollo identified some 79 miles of pipes around Tampa Bay for which there was no record of an inspection since the early 1990s. She also said there was no follow-up to indicate that Peoples Gas had dealt with decades-old readings of pipes that were out of compliance. She told all this to the PSC, which regulates utilities on behalf of consumers in Florida. At least, it's supposed to.

But as Tampa Bay Times staff writer William R. Levesque reported, Carollo's discoveries apparently had escaped the notice of the PSC for years. While the PSC bragged last year that its employees "first identified" the trouble at Peoples Gas, the state's largest natural gas utility, there's no reason to think the dangerous lapses would have come to light had Carollo not spoken up. The PSC inspector assigned to examine Peoples Gas records for Tampa and St. Petersburg and conduct spot checks in the field never found them. But the inspector was regularly accepting free lunches from the utility. That kind of coziness undermines the PSC's mission to be a watchdog and an advocate for Florida consumers.

In the end, the PSC fined Peoples Gas $3 million — an appropriate punishment — after issuing two highly critical audits that documented 156 violations and concluded the utility's safety inspection program was in disarray. Yet the audits still don't tell the public the whole story. They don't mention the inspector's free lunches. They also make no mention of Carollo, who was contacted for a follow-up interview about the lunches but not the more critical safety concerns. PSC executive director Braulio Baez claimed that the whistleblower statute prevented the commission from dealing with her directly, a contention that is simply wrong. The law protects people from retaliation by their employer, and Carollo never sought official whistleblower protection anyway. The statute in no way prevents the PSC talking to whistleblowers about wrongdoing.

Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, filed a bill that would bring some new measures of accountability to the PSC. The legislation would create performance-based incentives for utilities by rating their reliability, customer service, power plant performance and costs. It also would bar lawmakers from serving on the commission within six years of leaving the Legislature. The five commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, would represent different regions of the state and be limited to two four-year terms instead of the current three. The bill, which passed its first subcommittee hearing, is a good start toward reforming how the PSC operates.

Peoples Gas, which an audit found failed to conduct regular inspections of its gas pipelines, kept poor records and didn't correct problems with safety inspections, is the bad actor here. The PSC should have been the champion — after all, its mission is to protect the public from these kinds of violations. Instead, it looks like an accessory to the misdeeds. The whole episode demonstrates why the Legislature should pursue a thorough overhaul of the agency.

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