Crews battle a massive fire following a PG&E pipeline explosion in a residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif. September 9, 2010. (Mike Koozmin/2010 S.F. Examiner file photo)

PG&E convicted in criminal pipeline safety trial

After deliberating for nearly two weeks, a federal jury in San Francisco convicted PG&E on Tuesday of violating pipeline safety law and obstructing a probe into a fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno.

The San Francisco-based utility giant was accused of 11 counts of violating pipeline record-keeping, evaluation and testing requirements of the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act for high-pressure transmission lines, as well as one count of obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board probe into the San Bruno explosion.

The jury in the court of U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson found PG&E guilty of the obstruction count and five violations of the pipeline safety act, but acquitted them of six others.

Eight people died and dozens more were injured in the explosion and fire following the rupture of a high-pressure natural gas transmission pipeline that had a defective weld and was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless.

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane, who remained at the blast site at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive uninterrupted for two days following the incident on Sept. 9, 2010, said the jury’s verdict confirms the explosion “was not a tragic accident.”

“PG&E put profits ahead of safety,” Ruane said. “As a result, eight people in San Bruno lost their lives, 38 homes were destroyed, a neighborhood was obliterated and a city was traumatized.”

The maximum penalty PG&E could face is $500,000 per count, or $3 million for the six guilty counts. Federal prosecutors, in a surprise move last week, dropped their bid for an enhanced fine of up to $562 million if the utility had been convicted of all counts.

But Ruane said Tuesday’s verdict is not about money.

“What this does is actually give the judge a lot more leeway,” Ruane said. “We’re looking forward to the sentencing phase.”

Frank Pitre, the lead lawyer who represented some 57 families impacted by the San Bruno blast, said the jury’s verdict is further vindication for his clients, all of whom received confidential settlements in 2013 in civil cases filed in San Mateo County Superior Court against PG&E.

“There were eight lives lost,” Pitre said. “There [are] dozens who bare disfiguring scars from burns on their bodies. There were scores of people who had to flee the area believing they were going to be consumed by the inferno.”

Pitre added, “It vindicates that what happened here was criminal. If there’s any regret that I personally have it’s that there aren’t people going to jail who were the decision-makers to cut these budgets to allow this to happen.”

Meanwhile, Ruane said the Crestmoor neighborhood that was leveled in the explosion is nearly rebuilt, and expected to be complete by next year.

PG&E in a statement emphasized the company is working to rebuild trust with its customers.

“While we are very much focused on the future, we will never forget the lessons of the past,” the statement reads. “We have made unprecedented progress in the nearly six years since the tragic San Bruno accident and we are committed to maintaining our focus on safety.”

The statement continues, “We want our customers and their families to know that we are committed to re-earning their trust by acting with integrity and working around the clock to provide them with energy that is safe, reliable, affordable and clean.”

PG&E defense attorney Steven Bauer had argued in court that the PG&E managers and engineers who made pipeline testing and assessment decisions were “real people doing the best they could.”

In a separate civil proceeding, the California Public Utilities Commission last year fined PG&E $1.6 billion in three cases concerning the San Bruno explosion, record-keeping and maintenance of pipelines in high-population areas.

Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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