Pacific Gas & Electric Co. obstructed a federal investigation of the 2010 deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno and willfully violated the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety law, a federal jury determined Tuesday.
The government’s success was muted by a decision last week while jurors were still deliberating to cut the potential fines from $562 million to a maximum of $6 million. Because PG&E was acquitted on some charges, the current maximum fine is $3 million.
Six years ago a faulty weld in a natural gas transmission line that was recorded as “seamless” exploded killing eight people and destroying 38 homes and damaging dozens more.
Following a five and one-half week criminal trial, the jury found PG&E guilty of five felony counts of knowing failure to inspect and test its gas lines for weaknesses, and an additional count of felony obstruction of the Natural Transportation Safety Board investigation. Jurors deliberated over the course of seven days.
PG&E executives attempted to thwart the NTSB inquiry by denying it pumped natural gas through the transmission pipeline at pressures higher than allowed by federal standards.
The company was acquitted of six charges of intentional failure to maintain proper records of its pipeline tests and repairs.
“PG&E willfully failed to adequately prioritize as high risk, and properly assess, threatened pipelines after they were over-pressurized, as required by the PSA and its regulations,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco said in a prepared statement.
The NTSB began its investigation immediately after the blast and PG&E provided a version of a policy outlining the way the company addressed potential manufacturing defects on its pipelines. The company did not assess or prioritize as high-risk its oldest pipes in residential areas. Although it operated under that policy from 2009 to 2011, PG&E sent a letter to the NTSB withdrawing a document outlining that policy saying it was only an “unapproved draft.”
It was that conduct that was the basis of the obstruction conviction.
PG&E issued a prepared statement saying that while it is “very much focused on the future, we will never forget the lessons of the past.” Since the San Bruno blast, the company said, “We are committed to maintaining our focus on safety” and “re-earning” customer trust.
The company has spent $2.7 billion in shareholder funds to improve the natural gas system.
Case: U.S. v. PGE&, No. 14-CR-175