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PG&E criminally charged in fatal blast

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POSTED April 1, 2014 6:17 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas and Electric was charged on Tuesday with federal felony counts involving safety violations linked to a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The indictment charges the utility with 12 felonies and accuses it of violating numerous federal pipeline safety laws.

Federal prosecutors allege that PG&E knowingly relied on erroneous and incomplete information when assessing the safety of the pipeline that eventually ruptured, sparked a fireball and leveled 38 homes in San Bruno.

“The citizens of Northern California deserve to have their utility providers put the safety of the community first,” U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said in a news release.

Prosecutors also accused the company of failing to act on threats in its pipeline system even after the problems were identified by its own inspectors.

About a year after the explosion, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board found that these lapses by PG&E led to the blast.

PG&E Chairman and CEO Tony Earley said Tuesday the company is holding itself accountable and is deeply sorry.

“We have worked hard to do the right thing for victims, their families and the community, and we will continue to do so,” Earley said in a statement. “We want all of our customers and their families to know that nothing will distract us from our mission of transforming this 100-plus-year-old system into the safest and most reliable natural gas system in the country.”

It is rare but not unprecedented for a pipeline company to be charged with criminal safety laws.

Federal prosecutors previously investigated Olympic Pipe Line Co. in Washington state after an explosion in 1999 killed three people. That blast was caused by a ruptured line that spilled more than 225,000 gallons of gasoline into creeks running through a public park in Bellingham, Wash.

That federal investigation ultimately resulted in prison or probation terms for three company officials and a settlement requiring $112 million in penalties and safety improvements.

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