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Federal Judge Weighs Community Requirements For PG&E's San Bruno Conviction

A federal judge on Monday was still considering what community requirements to place on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) as a result of its criminal conviction last summer for its part in the 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, 10 miles south of San Francisco.

PG&E is balking at requirements that it cite its conviction in company advertising and alter an employee bonus program as part of its penalties.

Following a hearing in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said he is still pondering the company's final sentencing, but he was leaning toward requiring the large combination utility to cite its federal conviction in future advertisements on safety and to require utility employees to complete thousands of hours community service work.

Henderson is expected to make his decision on the penalties known this Thursday, a PG&E spokesperson told NGIon Tuesday.

PG&E was found guilty by a federal jury in San Francisco last August on five of 11 counts of violating natural gas pipeline safety regulations related to the September 2010 pipeline explosion, which killed eight people in a residential neighborhood in San Bruno.

No PG&E employees were charged in the federal criminal prosecution, and a potential $562 million fine was dropped by the prosecution during jury deliberations, but PG&E was fined $3 million for the convictions. Separately, the utility has withstood several billion dollars in regulatory and civil penalties related to San Bruno.

At Monday's court hearing, which included statements from family members of people killed, PG&E's Julie Kane, senior vice president and chief ethics/compliance officer, offered a "sincere apology" to the families and friends of the victims, adding that the company is "profoundly sorry."

"We want them to know our mission and our commitment to safety will never stop," Kane said. "We will remain forever committed to taking action to meet the high safety standards that our customers, and we, demand and expect."

Nevertheless, a PG&E attorney told the court to set a time limit on the proposed requirements for the future advertising and linking the messages to improved safety, while noting that the utility is prepared to pay the $3 million fine and to have a monitor oversee its operations as part of the sentence.

In addition to the advertising requirement calling attention to the criminal conviction, prosecutors have asked the judge to require PG&E to restructure its employee bonus program, something it is opposing.

Contrary to what the prosecution has alleged, PG&E engineers did not think the pipelines in San Bruno posed a threat,  and the company personnel never intended to mislead the federal investigators of the tragedy, utility attorneys told the judge.

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