4. The Trial
PG&E faced 11 charges of violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 (PSA) and 1 charge of obstruction of an NTSB proceeding.
For the several months following the explosion and fire, as the City continued to be inundated by media attention and requests for interviews and presentations, the City was called upon to provide extensive support to the year-long National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation. This became a full time responsibility for a team of our senior staff. When PG&E attempted to divert the investigation by asserting that the gas pipeline was actually damaged and weakened by a City pipe bursting project on a nearby sewer main line in 2008, our involvement became even more intense. At that point the City was required to hire experts who could help us research and learn the truth. Ultimately that information debunked this false and misleading claim.
Before the NTSB investigation was finished, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) opened three new proceedings to investigate and to penalize PG&E for its failure to operate and to maintain its gas system in compliance with applicable state and federal safety, records management and other regulations.
As a party to the proceedings, City staff and an outside legal team spent the following three years immersed in these proceedings. The City's participation led to uncovering serious deficiencies in the CPUC’s regulatory process including confirmation of the NTSB finding that the CPUC maintained a “too cozy” relationship with PG&E, compromising the integrity of the regulatory process and the safety of utility customers throughout the state. The City's work led further to exposing corruption at the highest levels of the CPUC which has resulted in a wholesale turnover of the Commission and on-going efforts toward reform and the establishment of a safety culture at the Commission.
Multiple investigations over a span of approximately six years found the explosion to be the result of PG&E's executive level decisions which prioritized profits over safety and which diverted pipeline improvement and safety funds to executive compensation and shareholder returns. The National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) investigation resulted in dozens of separate safety recommendations, among the largest number in any of their investigations. In April, 2015, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) concluded three separate investigations with assessment of a $1.6 billion fine and penalty to PG&E, the largest penalty ever levied against a public utility in United States history[MZ2] . The NTSB’s investigation also exposed lax enforcement by the CPUC, which was later confirmed by the City’s own investigations. The City advocated for and achieved significant reforms in how the CPUC regulates PG&E’s safety practices.
The U. S. Attorney’s Office filed eleven felony criminal charges in Federal Court for violation of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 (PSA) and one charge of obstruction of an NTSB proceeding. In August 2016, a federal jury found PG&E guilty of multiple willful violations of the PSA and obstructing an agency proceeding - specifically, PG&E was found guilty on five separate criminal charges that it knowingly and willfully violated specific pipeline safety regulations, requirements that are intended to protect the safety of the tens of millions of Americans who live and work near the pipelines running underneath our communities. PG&E was found guilty on an additional felony count of obstructing the National Transportation Safety Board's meticulous investigation into the root cause of the fatal blast. This was criminal conduct that occurred nearly a year after the deadly blast in our community and after PG&E knew that they had violated federal safety rules.
The guilty verdicts held PG&E accountable for their conduct and their disregard for customer safety. These verdicts made it clear that it was time for PG&E to accept responsibility to improve their corporate business practices and to make safety the highest priority in all of their operations.
In addition to a monetary penalty, the Federal Judge presiding over the case ordered PG&E to the maximum term of five years’ probation, which included an order that PG&E engage in 10,000 of community service that must be pre-approved by a federal probation officer. Of the 10,000 hours, 2,000 were required to be completed by “high level” employees of the company.
When the City of San Bruno discovered that many of the required community service hours that were completed had not been performed in or for the benefit of our community, the City initiated discussions with PG&E regarding how and where the remaining hours would be completed. This resulted in the City submitting a proposal to request that the Federal Court modify the hours by converting them into funding for a project that would benefit the entire community, especially the Crestmoor neighborhood.
In October 2019, following a series of discussions with PG&E, the U. S. Attorney’s Office, and the court’s probation officer, the City formally requested that the court modify the terms and conditions of PG&E’s probation. This request included a $3 million negotiated commitment from PG&E to establish a community benefit project for wildfire mitigation in and around San Bruno’s Crestmoor Canyon. The funding would satisfy PG&E’s remaining hours of community service and provide initial resources to launch a Crestmoor Canyon Wildfire Mitigation Project to clear vegetation, remove fallen trees and create a defensible space zone behind the private and public property that directly surrounds the Canyon.
In June 2020, the City of San Bruno launched its very own Crestmoor Canyon Wildfire Mitigation Project.