SAN FRANCISCO (BCN)—Opening statements in the criminal trial of PG&E Co. on obstruction of justice and pipeline safety violation charges will begin in federal court in San Francisco Friday morning.
After three days of jury selection, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson swore in a 12-member jury and six alternate jurors in his Federal Building courtroom at 1:10 p.m. today.
The trial is expected to last six weeks, running Tuesdays through Fridays. If convicted of all charges, the utility could be fined $562 million.
PG&E faces 12 counts of violating record-keeping and pipeline maintenance requirements of the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, plus one count of obstructing justice in a federal probe of the fatal explosion of a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno in 2010.
Eight people died, 66 were injured, and dozens of houses were destroyed and damaged in the explosion of the high-pressure transmission pipeline and ensuing fire on Sept. 9, 2010.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which conducted the federal civil probe, concluded the cause was a defective seam weld in a pipeline segment that was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless.
PG&E has said it takes responsibility for the blast but doesn’t believe its employees intentionally violated the pipeline law.
“Regardless of the next legal steps, we want our customers to know we are focused on the future and on re-earning their trust by leading in safety, reliability, affordability and clean energy,” the San Francisco-based company said in a statement this week.
San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said earlier this week, “We believe PG&E is guilty of a dereliction of its duty to protect the citizens of San Bruno and the citizens of California.
“We hope this trial against PG&E will bring justice and transparency, which the utility has not achieved on its own,” he said.
The federal criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice grew out of allegations of record-keeping deficiencies in the wake of the San Bruno blast.
But the only one of the 13 counts in a 2014 grand jury indictment of PG&E that explicitly mentions the blast is the charge of obstructing the NTSB investigation.
The other counts concern record-keeping and maintenance violations for several Peninsula and East Bay pipelines, including Line 132, the transmission line that runs through San Bruno.
In several pretrial motions in the two-year-old case, PG&E attorneys strenuously urged Henderson to bar or limit evidence about the explosion, arguing that it could be “highly prejudicial” to a jury.
Henderson has ruled that the trial is not about the explosion and prohibited prosecutors from arguing that safety-law violations caused the explosion because that allegation is not part of any of the charges.
He has barred prosecutors from showing videos of the flames and the victims, playing panicked 911 calls, presenting testimony about the number of deaths or showing jurors a section of the ruptured 30-inch-diameter pipeline segment on a flatbed truck outside the courthouse.
But Henderson also wrote in an April ruling, “The San Bruno explosion is unquestionably relevant to all thirteen counts that remain to be tried in this case.”
He said prosecutors could present evidence about the facts of the deadly explosion, show a map of destroyed and damaged houses, and present certain witnesses from the NTSB and other government agencies.
The opening statements were originally expected to begin today, and Ruane, San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson, City Councilmember Irene O’Connell, several explosion survivors and the city’s police chief, fire chief and other officers in dress uniforms came to the courthouse to attend the trial.
They will not be allowed testify, however. Federal prosecutors had hoped to have either Ruane or a firefighter testify to the validity of the map of explosion destruction.
But that testimony was made unnecessary when PG&E’s lawyers agreed to stipulate that the map is accurate.
Outside the courtroom today, Ruane declined to comment, saying that he’s waiting to see how the trial plays out. The city officials said they will return for the opening statements on Friday.