PG&E expects federal criminal charges for fatal pipeline blast
SAN FRANCISCO, California — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said last week the company will likely face federal criminal charges for its role in a fatal gas pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A disclosure document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by PG&E Corp. and its subsidiary said the company expects the federal government will bring criminal charges against the utility in connection with the Sept. 9, 2010, explosion of its transmission pipeline in San Bruno.
The blast killed eight people, injured dozens of others and sparked a fireball that laid waste to 38 homes in the bedroom community that still bears scars from the accident.
The company said it has been in discussions with federal prosecutors to reach a resolution, but it now expects federal prosecutors will charge that PG&E’s past operating practices violated numerous federal Pipeline Safety Act requirements. No details were provided about the type of charges anticipated or who might be charged.
Lillian Arauz Haase, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco, said she could not immediately comment.
PG&E President Tony Earley said the company has made fundamental changes to its operations and embraces recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after the explosion.
“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. Most of all, we are deeply sorry,” he said in a statement provided Thursday. “We’ve committed $2.7 billion of shareholders’ money to date and we’re making excellent operational progress. We have more work to do and we intend to do it right.”
About a year after the explosion, NTSB investigators found that a litany of failures by PG&E led to the blast and warned there was no certainty that those problems didn’t exist elsewhere.
The board also made a series of safety recommendations to regulators and the gas industry, concluding the incident wasn’t the result of a simple mechanical failure, but was an “organizational accident.”
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane hailed the announcement as good news for residents still seeking to heal from the disaster.
“Along with the upcoming conclusion of the ongoing penalty proceeding by the California Public Utilities Commission, the completion of this criminal prosecution will hopefully help bring closure and hold PG&E accountable and responsible for this devastating tragedy created by the gross negligence of PG&E,” he said.
Details of the criminal investigation, including possible charges that could result, are not being publicly discussed.
Federal prosecutors previously investigated a different pipeline company after a ruptured line spilled more than 225,000 gallons of gasoline into creeks running through a public park in Bellingham, Wash., causing an explosion. Three people died.
That federal investigation of the Olympic Pipe Line Co. explosion in 1999 ultimately resulted in prison or probation terms for three company officials and a settlement requiring $112 million in penalties and safety improvements.
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