Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell withdrew as a mediator in the talks to determine the size of fines that will be imposed on PG&E over the lethal natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, state regulators and Mitchell announced Friday.

The city of San Bruno and consumer advocacy organizations had lambasted the process by which the state's Public Utilities Commission had brought Mitchell on board as a mediator. One of the groups that objected was the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer group.

"We never questioned Sen. Mitchell, his ability, integrity or his competence," said Karen Paull, interim chief counsel with the division. "But the parties involved in the process are the ones who choose the mediator and set the ground rules for mediation. Mediation is not supposed to be imposed on the participants. Clearly, the senator understood those concerns."

Mitchell had served as a mediator in talks about strife-torn Northern Ireland. The PUC appointed Mitchell to mediate the San Bruno fine discussions.

"Sen. Mitchell is arguably the greatest mediator in the world today," PUC President Michael Peevey said in a prepared release. "It is regrettable that some of the parties did not appreciate the opportunity we afforded them to work with a man who is a true peacemaker."

It wasn't immediately clear whether a new mediator would be appointed to help achieve a settlement in the discussions about the potential PG&E fine for the pipeline blast in 2010.


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"The San Bruno investigation and regulatory proceedings have gone on for more than two years," Peevey said. "Unless a stipulation can be reached, I am worried it might take until mid-next year before these cases can be concluded in the normal litigation manner."

Commissioners Peevey and Mike Florio urged the parties to continue face-to-face negotiations to bring a settlement plan that the PUC can consider in the near future.

The city of San Bruno, The Utility Reform Network, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates and the city of San Francisco have been in talks with PG&E about a settlement on a fine. Paull pointed out that the four parties were having face-to-face discussions with PG&E, but those efforts were interrupted by the PUC's unexpected appointment of Mitchell, without consulting the consumer advocates or the cities.

"We are willing to negotiate face to face with PG&E as long as the company is willing to negotiate in good faith," Paull said.

PG&E said it was ready for further direct talks on the matter.

"We are a party to the process with the PUC, and we will continue to be a party to the process," PG&E spokesman Todd Burke said. "We look forward to continuing these negotiations."

Contact George Avalos at 925-977-8477. Follow him at twitter.com/george_avalos.