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Prosecution in fatal California utility explosion case unexpectedly drops potential penalties by 99%

03 August 2016

US utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) will no longer face more than $562 million in fines if it is convicted on all charges in the criminal case linked to the fatal San Bruno explosion after prosecutors on August 2 abruptly proposed dropping 99% of the fines the utility faced. The most PG&E could be fined if convicted for the blast that killed 8 people would be $6 million. 

San Bruno fire 2010 - Image Andrew Oh - CC
San Bruno fire 2010 - Image Andrew Oh - CC

In the criminal prosecution, PG&E is accused of 11 felony violations of laws that require gas pipeline operators to inspect their lines closely for potential risks, and to test or replace lines that show signs of hazards, as well as maintaining accurate records.

The presiding judge approved the prosecutors’ move and although the latter declined to comment on the rationale behind the move, a court filing from PG&E indicated it may have been caused by defence team arguments that if the company were to be convicted on any charges, PG&E would then be forced in the penalty phase of the trial to present an extensive and complex defence. 

California state Senator Jerry Hill, whose San Mateo County district includes San Bruno, said: "This is unbelievable. There is no way to justify this move when weighed against the loss of eight lives."

In April 2015, the state Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E a record $1.6 billion for the September 2010 explosion and fire caused by a defective pipeline seam that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno. The fines, and any penalties in the criminal case, are charged to the utility’s shareholders rather than its ratepayers.

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