Around dinner-time on September 9, 2010, a massive natural gas pipeline explosion occurred in a neighborhood in San Bruno, CA. Fire quickly spread, overwhelming the local fire department, requiring reinforcements from nearby towns to fight the eight alarm fire. By the time the fire was under control, 108 homes were damaged, and 38 homes were completely destroyed. Unfortunately, eight people lost their lives. Yesterday, criminal charges were filed against PG&E for their role in the disaster.
Previously, we reported on the possibility of defective and/or improper materials. Later, we reported that the NTSB found responsibility for the explosion was due to bad management on the part of PG&E, the utility responsible for maintaining the pipeline.
From Bad to Worse
On April 1, 2014, a federal grand jury indicted the utility on twelve counts of criminal violation (PDF) of 49 U.S.C. § 60123. According to SFGate:
The indictment says the utility repeatedly violated the federal Pipeline Safety Act, which mandates that operators maintain accurate records about their gas pipes, identify risks to lines and inspect or test when pipe pressures exceed the legal maximum.
Rather than follow the law, PG&E “knowingly relied on erroneous and incomplete information” in avoiding the type of inspections that could have exposed a badly manufactured seam weld on the gas transmission line and saved San Bruno from disaster, the indictment says.
In the 54 years that the weld lurked in the ground beneath the city, PG&E never conducted an inspection that could have detected it. In part, that was because it lost records that showed the most basic characteristics of the pipe, including whether it had seams.
While criminal charges were indeed filed, it is doubtful that any person will actually be incarcerated as a result. Instead, the utility is facing a maximum of $6-million in fines and “court-ordered oversight.” To put this fine into perspective, PG&E responded to the charges stating it has “committed to spending $2.7 billion of its shareholders’ money on upgrading its natural gas network.”
However, the fines associated with the criminal charges are not the only financial risks facing PG&E:
After the San Bruno disaster, the company conceded that it had no documentation for long segments of pipeline in Northern and Central California. The record-keeping problems are at the center of a state case in which the Public Utilities Commission is considering fines of as much as $2.5 billion against the company.
Clearly, this story is not yet over.
Image of the San Bruno pipeline fire at night courtesy Wikipedia