In a rare exception to the state hiring freeze, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to augment its natural gas pipeline safety effort nine months after a pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight, leveled 38 homes, and damaged 70 others. The CPUC announced late last week it plans to hire nine new staff members, including five additional gas pipeline inspectors and four employees to staff a new risk assessment unit. The new office is aimed at getting the state’s gas utilities to follow best pipeline safety practices drawn from around the world. The effort seeks to create a “safety program to embody the lessons of San Bruno,” said Paul Clanon, agency executive director. “Hiring more staff is just a beginning,” reacted Marcel Hawiger, attorney for The Utility Reform Network. He pointed out that the independent review panel that studied the San Bruno accident called out a number of areas for improvement at the CPUC. That panel last month reported the CPUC had insufficient staffing and resources to regulate the state’s natural gas pipeline system. It further said pipeline safety suffered from low visibility at the commission (Current, June 10, 2011). Aside from inadequate staffing--with only 18 involved in regulating the safety of the state’s sprawling pipeline network--the panel found that existing personnel lack training. It also concluded staff spent too much time inspecting gas distribution pipes in mobile home parks, and lacked enforcement authority, including the ability to assess monetary penalties for violations. Hawiger said while more staff is an improvement, the CPUC’s move does not address the other problems noted by the panel. For instance, the CPUC lacks a budget to send pipeline staff out of state to obtain training on federal pipeline safety standards. CPUC commissioner Mike Florio acknowledged that there’s “much work ahead” for the commission in improving its pipeline safety operations. He called for completion of new rules aimed at making the state’s aging pipeline system safer by requiring integrity testing and infrastructure upgrades. The commission launched a pipeline safety rulemaking earlier this year aimed at increasing oversight of utility gas transmission and distribution lines. The rules are not expected to be completed until sometime late in 2012.