SAN FRANCISCO — A federal grand jury charged Pacific Gas & Electric on Tuesday with lying to federal investigators in connection with a fatal pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled a suburban Northern California neighborhood in 2010.
The U.S. attorney in San Francisco announced the obstruction of justice charge and 27 related counts, which are in a new indictment charging the utility with felonies. It replaces a previous indictment that contained 12 counts related to PG&E's safety practices, but not obstruction.
Prosecutors say PG&E hampered the investigation by lying to National Transportation Safety Board investigators after the blast. In particular, PG&E officials are accused of trying to mislead the NTSB about the pipeline testing and maintenance procedures the utility was following at the time of the explosion and for six months after under a company policy that did not meet federal safety standards.
"The consequence of this practice was that PG&E did not prioritize as high-risk, and properly assess, many of its oldest natural gas pipelines, which ran through urban and residential areas," the U.S. attorney's office said in a statement.
The other charges accuse the utility of failing to act on threats in its pipeline system even after the problems were identified by its own inspectors. The indictment charges PG&E with keeping shoddy records, failing to identify safety threats and failing to act when threats were found.
NTSB investigators later found that PG&E had inaccurate records on its more than 6,000 miles of gas transmission lines, and that as a result hadn't tested for the defective seam weld that ruptured a pipeline and ignited the fireball that leveled several blocks and left eight people dead in San Bruno.
No employees or executives have been charged in the San Bruno disaster. Prosecutors could still file another indictment charging individuals.
The utility announced in June that it was expecting the new indictment. PG&E spokesman Greg Snapper said company officials had not yet seen it.
"However, based on all of the evidence we have seen to date, we do not believe that the charges are warranted and that, even where mistakes were made, employees were acting in good faith to provide customers with safe and reliable energy," he said in a prepared statement.
The new charges expose PG&E to more than $1 billion in fines. It had preciously faced up to a $6 million fine under the old indictment.