The California utility company whose faulty high-pressure gas lines exploded and leveled an entire San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood in 2010 was convicted by a federal court jury last month on one criminal charge of obstruction and five safety violations. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s biggest utility company, violated pipeline record-keeping, evaluation, and testing requirements mandated by the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act for high-pressure transmission lines. The utility company also misled authorities with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which was investigating the deadly blast, which killed eight people and injured dozens more. The company was acquitted of six other charges.
Federal prosecutors contended during the trial that PG&E intentionally misled federal investigators about the standards it used to identify pipelines at high risk of failure. The NTSB concluded that the San Francisco-based utility’s “sloppy maintenance practices and poor record keeping” paved the way for the blast, facilitated by “too-lax oversight by the Public Utility Commission.”
The disaster arose from an underground high-pressure natural gas pipeline that had a defective weld, but was incorrectly listed in PG&E’s records as seamless. It was reported that eight people in San Bruno lost their lives, 38 homes were destroyed, a neighborhood was obliterated and a city was traumatized. Many San Bruno residents who lost their homes and suffered a multitude of injuries including burns and disfiguring scars settled civil lawsuits with the utility in 2013. Additionally, the state’s Public Utility Commission hit PG&E last year with $1.6 billion in penalties for violations it found played a role in the disaster.
It was reported that during the trial, prosecutors unexpectedly asked the court to dismiss most of the potential punishment, which reduced total liability down to $6 million. In the end, PG&E was ordered to pay just half that amount. This apparently came as a surprise to many observers.
Sources: The East Bay Times, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, and The San Francisco Examiner
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