San Bruno explosion may be focus of criminal probe 

PG&E Corp. is many things to many people: A power provider. A major employer. A monopoly. A bill collector. A villain.

But a killer?

Legal experts say it is possible that prosecutors could charge the company with involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of eight people in September’s pipeline explosion in San Bruno. But such criminal charges against a corporation are extremely rare.

Last week, PG&E revealed to its shareholders that the U.S. Department of Justice, the state Attorney General, and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office have formed a task force to collaborate on a criminal investigation into the Sept. 9 explosion of a PG&E transmission pipeline and fire that took eight lives, injured more than 50 people, and gutted a quiet residential neighborhood.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating the cause of the explosion, and while it has not yet reached a conclusion, preliminary reports have pointed to problems with PG&E’s record-keeping, a faulty weld in the underground pipe and a pipeline problem that caused a pressure spike.

At least two other pipeline operators have been investigated by federal prosecutors following explosions, according to a report by financial analyst Bernstein Research. However, since corporations cannot be sent to prison — only individual employees — a guilty verdict usually results on heavy penalties and changes to relevant practices, said law professor Frederick Lambert of UC Hastings.

In a 1999 case, a gas pipeline operated by Shell in Bellingham, Wash., exploded and killed three people. The criminal investigation resulted in a settlement imposing $36 million in criminal fines and civil penalties, plus an agreement to spend $76 million on safety measures. Two managers in the case pled guilty and were given jail terms, according to the Bernstein report.

In a 2000 case in Carlsbad, N.M., a 30-inch pipeline exploded, killing 12. The U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement with operator El Paso Corp. to pay $16 million in civil penalties, plus an additional $86 million in safety measures. No criminal charges or penalties were imposed.

Bernstein’s memo states that “there are some remarkable similarities between the San Bruno explosion and the Bellingham explosion,” including that Shell was found not to have adequately monitored or inspected the Bellingham line.

In PG&E’s case, prosecutors could make an argument that PG&E was criminally negligent with the care of its property, said law Lambert, adding that the burden of proof would be extremely high.

“A corporation has all of the responsibilities of a private citizen to act carefully and not cause injury,” he said. “But it would have to be conduct so extreme as to involve not just negligence, but a level of recklessness that could rise to the level of criminal conduct.”

Manslaughter charges would be an even higher burden, Lambert said.

“For involuntary manslaughter, you’d have to show a knowing and continued pattern of conduct that placed the lives of innocent citizens in mortal danger,” he said. “I would say that’s highly, highly unlikely.” Even if no charges come from the task force investigation, it could make the California Public Utilities Commission more likely to impose fines, warned Bernstein Research in a memo this week.

“We expect that the existence of this parallel probe will put pressure on the CPUC to take a much more punitive approach towards PG&E to avoid criticism of being too lenient and lax a regulatory agency,” Bernstein’s note read.

PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson could not speculate the outcome of the investigation, but said that the company will fully cooperate with the task force.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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