SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s top executive is stepping down following a “challenging year” that included a natural gas pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb that killed eight and left 38 homes destroyed, the company announced Thursday.

Chairman, chief executive and President Peter Darbee will retire on April 30, PG&E said in a statement. Lee Cox, a former president and CEO of AirTouch Cellular and a member of PG&E’s board since 1996, will serve as interim chairman, CEO and president, the San Francisco-based energy company said.

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The September blast on a 44-year-old transmission line in San Bruno ignited a fire that raged for an hour and 40 minutes and left dozens injured. The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to determine a cause, but said in its initial investigation findings that the initial blast would have burned out much sooner had automatic shut-off valves been in place.

The California Public Utilities Commission has begun crafting new pipeline safety regulations, and federal transportation officials have pressed for pipeline companies to speed up efforts to repair and replace aging oil and gas lines. The commission approved a plan last week that requires PG&E to update officials on crucial safety work done on its natural gas pipelines over the next three years.

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Darbee’s departure will hopefully allow the company to hire someone with experience in the energy industry, commission President Michael Peevey said Thursday.

“While obviously the company under his leadership has been responsible for several poor and consequential decisions, Mr. Darbee’s commitment to PG&E and its constituents is unquestioned,” Peevey said in a statement. “The CPUC urges the company to return to its roots by hiring the most technically competent person.”

The company has launched some initiatives to strengthen the management of its natural gas system, but could face fines if it cannot produce documents proving that its high-pressure transmission lines have been operating safely.

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