By GARANCE BURKEAssociated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell has stepped down from overseeing private settlement talks over a deadly Northern California pipeline explosion after state regulators set up a mediation process criticized by several parties as an unfair, backroom deal.
The California Public Utilities Commission appointed the former Senate Majority Leader earlier this month to mediate a settlement aimed at determining how much Pacific Gas & Electric Co. should be fined for the blast.
But the cities of San Bruno and San Francisco as well as the commission's own consumer advocacy branch said Mitchell should not preside over talks because the commission had given PG&E advance notice of his hiring.
The organizations did not question the talents of Mitchell - who brokered the 1998 Northern Ireland treaty - but were concerned that he and his law firm, DLA Piper, previously had represented public utilities.
"What seemed to prompt the concern was simply the way we decided to appoint him, without prior consultation with the parties," said Commissioner Mike Florio, who chairs one of the proceedings intended to determine the level of fines for PG&E.
Over the past two years, the company has faced grueling public hearings over potential malfeasance leading up to the 2010 blast, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno, a bedroom community just south of San Francisco.
Commission staff said in an internal letter that settlement talks could restart Monday, now without a mediator.
"We're looking forward getting back to the negotiating table," said San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson. "It was forced mediation and a forced mediator that we objected to."
Mitchell's law firm did not immediately return emails and voicemails seeking comment Friday.
"We continue to support negotiations and look forward to being part of the process," said Todd Burke, a PG&E spokesman.
PG&E and the CPUC have refused to disclose any specifics about how much Mitchell and his firm were to be paid, or any other details about the contract. Tom Long, an attorney with the San Francisco-based nonprofit The Utility Reform Network, said the parties never actually met with Mitchell.
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