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Criminal charges expected in San Bruno blast that killed 8

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeEnergy ResourcesTransportation IndustryNational Transportation Safety Board

Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said Thursday it expects federal officials to bring criminal charges against the company in connection with a 2010 gas-pipeline blast that devastated a San Bruno neighborhood and killed eight people.

PG&E said it is negotiating with the U.S. Attorney's office for some type of resolution but provided few details. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco declined to comment on the investigation or say what if any charges were being considered.

In a statement issued Thursday, the San Francisco-based company “now expects that the U.S. Attorney will charge that PG&E's past operating practices violated the federal Pipeline Safety Act in areas such as record keeping, pipeline integrity management and identification of pipeline threats,” it said in a statement.

The company added: "PG&E believes that criminal charges are not merited and that PG&E employees did not intentionally violate the federal Pipeline Safety Act."

Criminal charges would be the latest of several blows the utility has taken since the blast. Last year, PG&E announced it would pay out $565 million in legal settlements and other claims stemming from the 2010 natural gas explosion.

The September blast injured dozens and destroyed 38 homes when a 54-year-old pipeline exploded underneath the San Francisco suburb.

The explosion was so powerful that it left behind a crater 167 feet long and 26 feet deep, with one 28-foot section of pipe flung 100 feet. It ignited a wind-driven fire that set treetops ablaze and illuminated the sky for miles around.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that maintenance work at a pipeline control center triggered electrical problems and a rise in gas pressure prior to the blast.

The agency issued a scathing report blaming PG&E for “baffling” mistakes, a “litany of failures,” and lax oversight, saying it took the gas company nearly 95 minutes to shut off the gas spewing from the broken pipeline.

A report by the California Public Utilities Commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division said its investigators found more than 100 violations by the company, some dating back decades.

Last May the regulators recommended that PG&E pay a record $2.25-billion penalty for the explosion, which would have been the largest penalty ever levied by the agency. Up until now, the PUC’s largest fine was $38 million, charged against PG&E for a 2008 natural gas explosion in Rancho Cordova.

No final decision has been made on fine, which PG&E has argued would be excessive.

PG&E said it is “committed” to spend $2.7 billion of shareholder money for safety-related projects. It also said it has completed nine of 12 safety recommendations made by the NTSB.

In a statement, PG&E Chairman and Chief Executive Tony Earley said the company was implementing changes to make its natural gas system the “safest and most reliable in America.”

“San Bruno was a tragic accident that caused a great deal of pain for many people. We’re accountable for that and make no excuses,” he said. “Most of all, we are deeply sorry. We have worked hard to do the right thing for victims, their families and the community, and we will continue to do so.”

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