One of the country’s largest utility companies was set to face a jury Thursday on criminal charges of obstructing investigators after a deadly pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The blast of the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline six years ago sent a giant plume of fire into the air, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes in the city of San Bruno. During the investigation that followed, prosecutors say the San Francisco−based utility misled federal officials about how it was identifying high−risk pipelines.
The standard the company used violated safety regulations and led to a failure to classify the San Bruno pipeline and other similar pipelines as high risk and properly assess them, prosecutors said in a 2014 indictment. The company also faces charges that it violated pipeline safety laws by ignoring shoddy record−keeping and failing to identify threats to its larger natural gas pipelines.
Opening statements in the trial are scheduled to start Thursday. PG&E has pleaded not guilty and said its employees did not intentionally violate pipeline safety laws or obstruct an investigation. The company faces a $562 million fine if convicted.
"Regardless of the next legal steps, we want our customers to know we are focused on the future and on re−earning their trust by leading in safety, reliability, affordability and clean energy," the company said in a statement. "We’ve made unprecedented progress, and we’re committed to maintaining this focus."
Investigators have blamed the September 2010 blast in part on poor PG&E record−keeping that was based on incomplete and inaccurate pipeline information. Company records, for example, indicated the pipe that ran through the city was seamless. But a laboratory examination later showed the pipe was constructed with seam−welds that failed during the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board determined.
California regulators fined the company $1.6 billion for the blast last year.
PG&E’s attorneys fought to block any reference to the San Bruno blast at trial. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson did not grant that request, although he barred prosecutors from showing jurors the segment of the pipeline that exploded or saying how many people died and how many homes were destroyed.
Henderson also excluded the NTSB’s conclusions about the blast, saying jurors might wrongly substitute the agency’s findings about regulatory violations for their own.
-The Associated Press