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PG&E must run TV commercials about its pipeline safety crimes, judge rules

The San Bruno explosion
A massive fire following the explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., left eight people dead in 2010.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

A federal judge on Thursday sentenced California’s largest utility to pay a $3-million fine and run television commercials publicizing its pipeline safety convictions as punishment in a criminal case stemming from a deadly natural-gas explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson also ordered Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employees to perform 10,000 hours of community service and ordered an independent monitor to oversee the safety of its gas pipeline system.

“I find the crimes at issue to be very serious and to pose a great risk to public safety, and that’s why I am going to impose the maximum possible fine and maximum possible probation terms allowable under the law,” Henderson said. 

The sentence closes one of the final chapters in the legal and regulatory fallout from the 2010 blast in the city of San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

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A jury convicted the company in August of five counts of pipeline safety violations, including failing to gather information to evaluate potential gas-line threats and deliberately not classifying a gas line as high risk. Prosecutors said the company deliberately misclassified pipelines so it wouldn’t have to subject them to appropriate testing, choosing a cheaper method to save money.

Jurors also convicted the utility of misleading investigators after the blast.

California regulators have previously fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the explosion, and the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars settling victims’ lawsuits. 

PG&E said it was committed to turning itself into the “safest and most reliable energy provider in America” and earning back the trust of the communities it serves. 

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The advertising component of the sentence requires PG&E to air TV commercials over three months at a maximum cost of $3 million. The commercials should publicize the utility’s convictions, the punishment imposed and steps taken to prevent the recurrence of similar crimes, the judge said.

PG&E estimates the ad campaign will result in about 12,500 roughly 60-second commercials.

The judge said he wants PG&E to perform as much of the community service requirement as possible in San Bruno. High-level personnel must carry out at least 2,000 of the 10,000 hours. 

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UPDATES:

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1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the sentence and with comments from the judge and PG&E.

This article was originally published at 1:15 p.m.


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