Criminal Trial Pending for 2010 Blast

FRIDAY, APRIL 29, 2016

Six years after a devastating blast in one of its natural gas pipelines, a California utility company is facing a criminal trial.

Pacific Gas & Electric is facing 13 criminal counts, including 12 claims that it violated pipeline safety regulations and one that it obstructed the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, according to multiple reports.

The San Francisco-based firm faces fines up to $562 million if convicted on all of the criminal counts, The Mercury News reported.

As reported previously, the incident occurred Sept. 9, 2010, when a segment of PG&E's 30-inch gas transmission line exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people, injuring 58, destroying 38 homes, and damaging another 70.

In April 2015, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a fine totaling $1.6 billion for committing 2,425 violations related to the blast. The record fine was 10 times bigger than any fine ever imposed by the state regulatory agency.

At that time, the CPUC published a 301-page decision in which it said its investigations into the explosion, PG&E's recordkeeping practices and the company's pipeline classification related to higher density populations "have brought to light the characteristics and consequences of PG&E's longstanding failure to heed federal and state regulations governing the safe operation of natural gas transmission pipelines throughout its system."

PG&E has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, according to an ABC News report.

Witness Immunity

According to documents filed with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the prosecution team is expected to call 44 witnesses, including former and current company executives, to present testimony in the case.

Eight of those PG&E executives have received court-ordered immunity to testify against the company, the area paper said.

“The immunity agreements show there was some sort of criminal activity, or immunity from prosecution wouldn't be necessary," democratic state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno, told the paper Tuesday (April 26).

“The immunity agreements suggest some of this evidence will be quite incriminating," he added.

Destruction in San Bruno
Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of the 44 witnesses slated to be called for the prosecution, eight are former or current PG&E executives who received court-ordered immunity for their testimony, which experts speculate supports the presence of criminal activity on the company's part.

"PG&E employees did not intentionally violate the pipeline safety act or obstruct an investigation," said Gregory Snapper, a PG&E spokesman. "Even where mistakes were made, employees were acting in good faith to provide customers with safe and reliable energy."

However, the topics to be covered by former executives during the trial suggest otherwise.

Former company regulator executive Brian Cherry, who received immunity, is scheduled to testify about PG&E’s statements to the Public Utility Commission and NTSF about a range of issues, including the firm’s policies about gas pipe pressure and pipeline records.

William Hayes, the company’s gas operations executive, was also the company representative for the NTSB probe into the explosion. He is slated to address the company's testing policies for problems in older lines when pressures spiked, as well as what the utility told the NTSB about those policies.

Prosecutors reportedly identified this testimony as “the heart of the obstruction charge" in court documents.

Another former PG&E executive, Leslie McNiece, is expected to testify she encountered “opposition and push-back from top executives” regarding her company-mandated assignment to improve the company's record keeping for its pipelines, the News reported.

Trial Restrictions

While the prosecution team is expected to present more than 1,000 pieces of evidence in its case, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson recently set restriction on what it can put before the jury.

The federal judge has prohibited prosecutors from showing jurors a 3,000-pound section of the exploded pipeline they planned to deliver via flatbed truck to a street near the courthouse, ABC News indicated last week.

Pipeline segment

A federal judge has banned the prosecution team from showing jurors a section of the exploded pipeline, from indicating the number of deaths or destroyed homes, and from showing pictures of the blast area.

According to Henderson, PG&E has “conceded errors in its records” about the pipeline, which, he cautioned, “could create an emotional response in jurors.”

He has also banned prosecutors from stating how many people died in the explosion or how many houses were damaged and from showing images of the area after the blast, as he felt such information could bias jurors.

He also allowed the utility’s request to eliminate the NTSB’s analysis into the explosion, under the concern that jurors could mistakenly apply the agency’s findings regarding regulatory violations to their own conclusions.

While the utility company also sought to keep any mention of the 2010 blast out of the trial, Henderson noted such references are "unquestionably relevant" to the charges in the case.

The incident makes it "at least somewhat more likely" the pipeline was not properly maintained in line with safety regulations, and it underpins the obstruction charge, according to Henderson.


Tagged categories: Criminal acts; Fatalities; Laws and litigation; North America; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Oil and Gas; Pipeline; Pipelines; Pipes; Program/Project Management; Safety; Utilities

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