PG&E Co. was charged in a revised grand jury indictment in San Francisco today with a new criminal count of obstructing justice in a probe of a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010, U.S. prosecutors announced this evening.
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said the superseding indictment also charges the utility with 27 counts of willfully violating the federal Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act in its recording-keeping and pipeline management practices.
The original indictment against PG&E, filed April 1, contained 12 counts of violating the pipeline safety law.
As of 7 p.m., the expanded indictment had not yet been posted on the court’s electronic docket.
Haag said the grand jury charged PG&E with obstructing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the San Bruno explosion and fire, which killed eight people and injured 66 others on Sept. 9, 2010.
She said the indictment alleges that during the investigation, PG&E provided a version of a policy outlining the way in which it addressed manufacturing risks on its natural gas pipelines.
PG&E later withdrew that version, claiming it was produced in error, and was an unapproved draft. In fact, PG&E allegedly was operating under the so-called unapproved draft from 2009 through April 5, 2011, the U.S. attorney said.
Haag said the consequence of that practice was that PG&E did not prioritize as high-risk and properly assess many of its oldest natural gas pipelines, which ran through urban and residential areas.
PG&E’s next scheduled court appearance is a status conference before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco on Aug. 18.
If the utility is convicted, the 28 charges each carry a potential maximum fine of either $500,000 or twice the amount of either PG&E’s gain or the victims’ loss from the alleged crimes. The indictment alleges that PG&E’s gain was $281 million and the victims’ loss was $565 million, Haag said.
PG&E said in a statement, “We have not yet seen the superseding indictment.
“However, based on all of the evidence we have seen to date, we do not believe that the charges are warranted and that, even where mistakes were made, employees were acting in good faith to provide customers with safe and reliable energy,” the utility stated.
PG&E also said, “San Bruno was a tragic accident. We’ve taken accountability and are deeply sorry.”
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane asserted, “The new criminal charges demonstrate a pattern of deceit by PG&E.
“The indictment shows federal prosecutors are taking the strongest steps to ensure PG&E is brought to justice based on the evidence of criminal actions and gross negligence,” Ruane said.
The indictment comes a day after Ruane and other San Bruno officials asked Gov. Jerry Brown to remove Commissioner Michael Peevey from the presidency of the California Public Utilities Commission on the ground that Peevey and his staff improperly exchanged private e-mails with PG&E officials on matters being investigated by the PUC.
San Bruno also asked the commission itself to disqualify Peevey from acting on three proceedings related to the San Bruno explosion and to sanction PG&E for allegedly violating a rule against private communications.
“The cozy relationship between PG&E and the CPUC that led to this preventable tragedy must end now,” Ruane reiterated today.
In one of the proceedings, the PUC is considering how much to fine PG&E for record-keeping and safety-compliance failures.
San Bruno has urged the commission to levy the maximum allowable penalty and fine, a total of $2.45 billion in after-tax funds.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News