PG&E Co. pleaded not guilty in federal court in San Francisco today to 12 criminal charges stemming from the fatal explosion of a natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno in 2010.
A lawyer for the utility entered the plea this morning before U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero, who set a further hearing at 2:30 p.m. today before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to determine the next steps in the case.
The indictment, issued by a federal grand jury on April 1, alleged that PG&E “knowingly and willfully” violated requirements of the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 in regard to Line 132 in San Bruno and two other pipelines.
The rupture of Line 132 in San Bruno resulted in an explosion and fire on Sept. 9, 2010, that killed eight people, injured 58 others, destroyed 38 houses and damaged 70 other buildings.
The criminal violations alleged in the indictment include failing to maintain adequate records, evaluate risks of pipeline corrosion and leaks, and prioritize and address potential threats between 2003 and 2010.
The segment of Line 132 that ruptured was installed in approximately 1956 and had a defective seam weld, but was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless, according to the indictment.
Federal law provides that if PG&E is convicted, the penalty would be either a fine totaling $6 million for the 12 charges or the amount of the loss created, which could be calculated as either the loss caused to victims or the financial gain the company made as a result of the violation.
Prosecutors indicated at this morning’s hearing that they plan to seek the second, larger amount if the utility is convicted.
Outside of court, Steven Meyers, a lawyer for the city of San Bruno, said he didn’t know how much that total might be, but said it would be “much larger” than $6 million.
San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said, “We’re pleased that the United States government has indicted PG&E and made a strong statement.”
PG&E said in a statement, “San Bruno was a tragic accident that caused a great deal of pain for many people. We’re accountable for that and make no excuses.”
The utility said, “While we don’t believe any employee intentionally violated federal pipeline safety regulations, the legal process will ensure that all of the facts related to this tragic event are fully reviewed.”
In a separate administrative proceeding, the California Public Utilities Commission is currently considering a proposal by its safety division staff to impose a $2.25 billion penalty on PG&E for violations related to the San Bruno explosion.
The proposed civil penalty, if imposed by the commission, would include a $300 million fine that would go into the state’s general fund, while the remainder could pay for pipeline repairs and upgrades.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News