SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Victims who lost loved ones in a fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster urged a federal judge on Monday to impose the maximum sentence on Pacific Gas and Electric to ensure that such a tragedy never occurs again.
Susan Bullis was the first victim to address the court Monday in a hearing to determine PG&E’s sentence for five counts of violating the Pipeline Safety Act and one count of obstructing a federal investigation.
Bullis said her life was changed forever on Sept. 9, 2010, when she lost her husband, 17-year-old son, mother-in-law and dog in an explosion caused by the rupture of Line 132 in a residential neighborhood of San Bruno. It killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.
“I wanted to join my beloved, deceased family,” Bullis said. “I truly did not want to live.”
Bullis said she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and is no longer the social person she was. She can no longer go to church on Sundays because she bursts into tears, imagining her lost family members sitting in the pews, she said.
“No court decision will bring back my family or former life,” Bullis said. “It is my hope through proper checks and balances that a tragedy like this will never happen again.”
Rene Morales told the court not a day goes by that her thoughts do not return to the day her 20-year-old daughter was killed in a blaze caused by the explosion.
“I wish I could turn back time,” Morales said. “I would hold her and not let her out that door.”
Jessica was at her boyfriend’s home watching the first regular game of the NFL football season when the pipeline ruptured and set the neighborhood aflame.
The grieving mother said she wonders today if PG&E or its executives have any regret.
She said that requiring an independent monitor to review the company’s safety practices for the next five years falls short of what’s needed to prevent another such tragedy.
“I think a separate nonprofit should be established, someone that’s not going to hold the hand of PG&E,” Morales said. “It should be an independent nonprofit moving forward to monitor them so that this doesn’t happen again.”
During the Monday hearing, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said he would impose the maximum $3 million fine and 5-year probation term on Pacific Gas & Electric, but he delayed handing down an official sentence.
A 12-member jury in August 2016 convicted the utility company of five counts of Pipeline Safety Act violations and one count of obstructing an investigation into the cause of the San Bruno blast.
The maximum fine was reduced from a potential $562 million after prosecutors dropped Alternative Fines Act charges against PG&E last summer without explanation.
While the cause of the blast was not an issue at trial, Henderson said, “Even PG&E seems to acknowledge there’s some link between the explosion and overall safety of its pipeline system.”
Henderson said that though he has not concluded that pipeline safety lapses caused the blast, he finds that conduct “makes such an occurrence more likely,” and would weigh heavily on his mind as he decides on an appropriate sentence.
Prosecutors asked the court to appoint an independent monitor to review PG&E’s compliance with pipeline safety laws for the next five years. PG&E raised no objections to that.
The federal government asked the court to make PG&E change the way it awards incentive bonuses to employees. And it asked that the company be required to advertise its criminal conviction to the public and dedicate 10,000 hours of community service, with 2,000 hours to be performed by high-level executives.
PG&E argued in court filings that requiring it to spend money on advertising and to perform more community service on top of the thousands of hours it already dedicates each year would “functionally increase the penalty beyond the statutory maximum.”
But the company appeared to change its tune Monday after victims testified, saying it would no longer object to new community service requirements.
PG&E attorney Steven Bauer said the company would accept advertising mandates with time restraints, so long as the ads were “geared toward improving safety instead of as a punitive measure.”
And PG&E’s vice president of ethics compliance Julie Kane apologized to victims.
“On behalf of PG&E, we sincerely apologize to the family and friends of those who lost their lives or who were injured in this explosion,” Kane said during the hearing. “We will remain forever committed to meeting the high safety standards our customers expect.”
Federal prosecutor Hartley West urged the judge not to simply make PG&E spend money on generic safety ads. She said the company should inform the investing public of its criminal behavior by placing an ad in The Wall Street Journal.
“The customers don’t have a choice about using PG&E,” West said, referring to the company’s status as a state-regulated monopoly. “For this reason, we think it’s critical for the investing public to have information on the conviction, so the investing public can make the decision and vote with their pocketbooks.”
Henderson said he would probably not require PG&E to make safety a higher priority in its bonus incentive program because it already makes safety account for 50 percent of its bonus criteria, higher than required by the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the utility’s bonus program.
After a 90-minute hearing, Henderson continued the sentencing hearing until Thursday morning.