Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) pleaded not guilty Monday to 12 federal criminal charges stemming for its actions leading up to the 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline explosion that killed eight people and injured scores more in San Bruno, about 10 miles south of San Francisco.
PG&E attorneys entered the not guilty pleas for the 12 separate charges of violations of federal pipeline safety laws. The indictment accuses PG&E of repeatedly violating the U.S. Pipeline Safety Act from 2003 to 2010, alleging that the company’s failures led to a preventable tragedy (see Daily GPI, April 2).
Federal Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco granted prosecutors their request that the maximum fine facing PG&E be more than $6 million. Prosecutors have alleged that the giant San Francisco-based combination utility knowingly relied on erroneous and incomplete information when assessing its pipelines safety, leading to the explosion on Sept. 9, 2010.
"The company believes that even where mistakes were made, employees were acting in good faith," a utility spokesperson said. "We don't believe that any employee intentionally violated federal pipeline safety regulations."
PG&E reiterated the statement by CEO Tony Earley when the charges were filed April 1 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. "We're accountable for [the explosion], and [we] make no excuses. Most of all, we are deeply sorry, and we have worked hard to do the right thing for victims, their families and the community."
The utility continues to point to its pipeline safety programs in which the company's shareholders have invested $2.7 billion during the past three-and-a-half years. It provides real time information on its website related to a safety programs (www.pgeresponds.com).
San Bruno city officials have been constant and stern critics of PG&E in regulatory, legislative and community forums since the explosion (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13, 2010), and they have issued supportive statements backing prosecutors.
The indictments called out PG&E for its failure to identify a flawed weld on the 54-year-old San Bruno pipeline (Line 132) that ruptured. The charges hit hard at PG&E's seemingly long history of poor record-keeping (see Daily GPI, Sept. 6, 2013), which was amplified by the fact that the pipe segment in Line 132 that failed was described as "seamless" (no welds) in the utility's records at the time of the incident when, in fact, a major flawed weld was revealed by the post-incident federal investigation and analysis of the pipe.