SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Prosecutors and defense attorneys offered dual versions of a “Sunday drive” analogy on Wednesday, before jurors began deciding if Pacific Gas and Electric violated pipeline safety laws and obstructed a federal investigation.
In his closing argument, PG&E attorney Steven Bauer compared the utility company’s practice of spiking pressure on older pipelines every five years to taking a Sunday drive.
Under a grandfather clause established in the 1968 Pipeline Safety Act, gas lines installed before 1970 — like Line 132 in San Bruno — can only operate at the highest pressure experienced over the last five years.
The “use it or lose it” requirement encouraged operators like PG&E to spike pressure to the maximum on older pipelines every five years, Bauer told the jury.
“Without running up to the maximum every week, you lose capacity,” Bauer said, describing his Sunday drive metaphor.
PG&E conducted planned pressure increases on Line 132 in San Bruno in 2003 and 2008. The long-seam welded pipe, which was installed in 1956 and was inaccurately listed as seamless rather than welded in PG&E’s flawed record system, ruptured on Sept. 9, 2010, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
The government says PG&E exceeded the maximum pressure on pipelines during its planned pressure spikes, and that those over-pressurizations should have required the company to immediately inspect or replace the line.
However — and continuing with his drive analogy — Bauer said if drivers are trying to hit 70 miles per hour each week to comply with the law and maintain their ability to drive at that speed, it would be unrealistic not to exceed that number by some margin.
“Sometimes there’s a fluctuation, give or take, with speedometers,” Bauer said. “To get it up to exactly 70 is impossible.”
PG&E exceeded the maximum on Line 132 during planned pressure spikes in 2003 and 2008 but continued to assess the line with external corrosion surveys instead of replacing the line or conducting more thorough assessments, the government says.
Prosecutors pointed to an FAQ, or Frequently Asked Question, issued by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which states that one pound of pressure over the maximum is too many.
Bauer countered that by showing the jury a draft version of the same FAQ, which stated that “a small pressure increase would be unlikely to cause a manufacturing defect to become unstable.”
In her rebuttal to PG&E’s closing argument, U.S. Assistant Attorney Hartley West offered the jury a different version of the Sunday drive analogy.
“This isn’t your car that you’re in,” West said. “This is driving a public bus that members of the community are in, and it’s an old public bus. You’ve been told, ‘We know it’s an old public bus that hasn’t been tested. We say if you’ve driven the bus up to 50, you can do it again, but there is a chance if you go over 50, the bus could explode unless you have it tested.'”
West reminded jurors that unlike the innocent-sounding Sunday drive analogy, PG&E transports natural gas — “a highly dangerous substance” — through populated areas.
The prosecutor urged the jury to carefully look at records showing PG&E exceeded the maximum pressure on multiples lines with manufacturing threats and failed to conduct adequate tests or replace those lines.
During closing arguments, both sides also offered dueling views on whether a letter PG&E sent to the National Transportation Safety Board on April 6, 2011, was proof the company intentionally misled those investigating the San Bruno explosion.
The letter said that a previous document PG&E sent to the National Transportation Safety Board stating the company would only prioritize pipelines as high risk if it exceeded the maximum pressure by plus 10 percent was actually an unapproved draft sent by mistake.
“All the information in this letter is actually true,” Bauer said. “The evidence has shown the letter was not false or misleading, not part of a big cover-up.”
West offered the jury a different interpretation of the letter.
“Was that misleading,” she asked. “Yes.”
PG&E claimed it could not find a cover sheet showing that version of its risk-management policy was ever approved. Ignoring over-pressurizations unless they climbed 10 percent above the maximum was a clear violation of federal law, the government’s expert witness, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration senior engineer Steven Nanney, told jurors earlier in the trial.
“Was there actually a cover page that was mismatched?” West asked. “It doesn’t matter. The question is was PG&E actually doing this? And you see time and time again the answer is yes.”
West concluded her closing rebuttal by asking the 12-member jury to come back with the “right verdict — guilty on all counts.”
PG&E faces 11 counts of violating recordkeeping and testing requirements under the Pipeline Safety Act and one count of obstructing an investigation into the cause of the San Bruno explosion.
Prosecutors on Tuesday dropped one recordkeeping charge against the company without explanation.
If convicted, a second phase of the trial will begin to determine the fine PG&E must pay for violating the law. The company faces a $562 million maximum penalty.
The 12-member jury went home Wednesday afternoon after deliberating for about two hours. Jurors are expected to continue deliberating on Thursday morning.