A federal jury found Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest utility company, guilty of obstructing investigators probing a deadly 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled dozens of homes in the San Francisco Bay area.
The criminal trial ended Tuesday with the utility convicted of six charges, including one charge that it obstructed a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official investigating the blasts, which occurred on Sept. 9 in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. The other five charges stemmed from federal pipeline safety violations.
Federal prosecutors argued during the trial that PG&E intentionally misled federal investigators about the standards it used to identify pipelines at high risk of failure. The NTSB eventually concluded that the San Francisco-based utility’s sloppy maintenance practices and poor record keeping paved the way for the blast, facilitated by too-lax oversight by the Public Utility Commission.
According to the East Bay Times, “Critics of PG&E also believe the utility prioritized profits at the expense of safety, preferring to pay executive bonuses rather than spend money on upgrading its vast network of aging gas pipelines.”
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane, one of PG&E’s most vocal critics, accused utility executives of squandering profits. “Money that should have gone into the ground went into people’s pockets,” Mayor Ruane said in a statement about the case.
PG&E was acquitted of six other counts of violating federal pipeline safety rules.
Aside from the criminal reputation PG&E and its executives have in the Bay Area, the utility has come away from the San Bruno disaster relatively easy. PG&E initially faced paying up to $1.14 billion when it was indicted in 2014, but a federal judge later capped its liability to $562 million.
During the trial, prosecutors unexpectedly asked the court to dismiss most of the potential punishment, which whittled total liability down to $6 million. In the end, PG&E was ordered to pay just half that amount.
The Public Utility Commission didn’t allow PG&E to get away so easily. In April 2015, commissioners hit it with $1.6 billion in fines for the San Bruno disaster.
“The punishment will never fit the crime,” San Bruno resident Bill Magoolaghan, who escaped the blast with his family, told the East Bay Times. “There’s no way that any amount of fines or money is ever going to justify killing eight people and blowing up our neighborhood.”