SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge Wednesday tossed more than half of the criminal charges against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas explosion, but PG&E still faces trial on many charges.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who recently reduced PG&E’s potential criminal fine from $1.13 billion to $562 million, dismissed more than half of the U.S. Pipeline Safety Act violations as duplicative.
The government charged PG&E with 27 counts of violating the Act, some of them directly tied to the blast that leveled a neighborhood, killing eight people, injuring 58 and destroying 38 homes.
San Francisco-based PG&E has pleaded not guilty to those 27 counts, and to a 28th count, of obstructing an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Henderson dismissed 15 of the counts, finding that precedent favors charges based on broad categories of similar conduct rather than individual counts based on similar conduct.
PG&E cannot face cumulative punishments for each pipeline that violated integrity-management (IM) regulations, Henderson said, allowing only five representative offenses to remain of the original 20 safety allegations.
Henderson agreed with PG&E that allowing the government to proceed on the 20 charges would unfairly prejudice the power company in the eyes of the jury.
The indictment “alleges only a single course of conduct for each of the five relevant IM regulations, and this is enough to sustain only five counts. This conclusion does not diminish how serious PG&E’s alleged failure to heed the IM regulations was, or how dangerous it was for PG&E to fail so many times over,” Henderson wrote .
He upheld seven recordkeeping allegations, despite PG&E’s argument that they are barred by the statute of limitations .
Two of the counts charge the company with knowingly and willfully violating sections of the Pipeline Safety Act that require pipeline operators to maintain and retain the date, location and description of repairs made to pipes for as long as those pipes remain in service.
The other five recordkeeping charges say PG&E violated the section that requires pipeline operators to keep a record of each pressure test performed for the life of the pipeline.
“The end dates for all seven challenged counts are plainly within the seven-year limitations period,” Henderson found. The allegations also sufficiently inform PG&E of the nature of the accusations the company faces.
“PG&E knows very well what it must do to defend the challenged counts at trial; it must come prepared to rebut the government’s evidence that it failed to create and maintain any record for any repair made or relevant pressure test conducted during the seven-year statute of limitations,” Henderson wrote.
Henderson refused to throw out an obstruction of justice charge, which is based on allegations that PG&E lied to National Transportation Safety Board investigators after the San Bruno explosion.
The investigation is a “proceeding” that can be obstructed, Henderson said, and the Ninth Circuit has held that “proceeding” is broad enough to include investigative actions.
“But even the definition of ‘proceeding’ advanced by PG&E includes investigations: Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘administrative proceeding’ as ‘[a] hearing, inquiry, investigation, or trial before an administrative agency, usually adjudicatory in nature but sometimes quasi-legislative,'” Henderson wrote. “Adopting PG&E’s definition therefore directs a finding that the plain meaning of ‘proceeding’ includes ‘investigations,’ such as the one conducted by the NTSB in San Bruno.”
The government did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment late Wednesday.
PG&E spokesman Greg Snapper said, “Regardless of this decision or the next legal steps, we will remain steadfastly focused on our mission of becoming the safest, most reliable gas company in the nation.”
The trial is set for March 8 in San Francisco.
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