SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — More than half of the felony counts Pacific Gas and Electric Co. faced from a natural-gas explosion that killed eight people near San Francisco were dismissed on Wednesday by a federal judge who said that some of the alleged offenses were too similar.
District Court Judge Thelton Henderson tossed out 15 of the 27 pipeline safety violations on which PG&E was indicted last year in a criminal case brought by the U.S. government that is scheduled to go to trial in March, the San Francisco Chronicle reported (http://sfg.ly/1PlNHcf).
Henderson agreed with the utility’s lawyers that the disallowed counts duplicated offenses already covered in the indictment and could unfairly prejudice a jury. Instead, he winnowed the allegations to one for every pipeline-safety standard PG&E stands accused of knowingly violating.
“This conclusion does not diminish how serious PG&E’s alleged failure to heed the (safety) regulations was, or how dangerous it was for PG&E to fail so many times over,” the judge wrote.
Along with a representative sample of alleged safety violations and a separate set of counts tied to record-keeping, the judge let stand an obstruction of justice charge based on the assertion that PG&E lied to federal investigators after the fatal 2010 blast in the city of San Bruno.
In particular, PG&E officials are accused of trying to mislead the National Transportation Safety Board about the testing and maintenance procedures the utility was following at the time of the explosion and for six months after under a policy that did not meet federal safety standards.
PG&E issued a statement saying the company is committed to safety “regardless of this decision or the next legal steps,” the Chronicle said.
The explosion and fire that resulted from a ruptured gas-transmission pipeline killed the eight residents and destroyed 38 homes.
San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson told the newspaper she is confident the reduced number of counts does not diminish the strength of the case. “The judge himself has identified that his ruling hasn’t diminished the gravity of the charges,” Jackson said.