The Unmentionables in the PG&E Trial

The most striking thing about the criminal case being laid out against PG&E in federal district court in San Francisco is not what has been said but what hasn’t been said: San Bruno.

Early on, PG&E’s slick corporate lawyers won a ruling from Judge Thelton Henderson that limits the evidence that can be presented in the case to whether or not PG&E violated federal pipeline safety standards and obstructed the NTSB’s investigation into the explosion that killed 8 people. PG&E doesn’t want the jury to hear from people like Rene Morales, who lost her daughter in the blast, or Sue Bullis, who lost her husband, child and mother-in-law, or even to hear the name of the city they lived in mentioned.

In fact, P&GE ‘s high-priced attorney Steve Bauer (his firm, Latham and Watkins, received over $21 million from PG&E in 2015) moved for a mistrial when prosecutor Hartley West mentioned the name of the community PG&E’s negligence blew up. But Bauer himself had a hard time avoiding mention of the explosion in his interminable four and a half hour opening statement- the judge had to remind him not to do so.

If San Bruno can’t be mentioned, the pipeline that PG&E neglected there certainly can. Days after the blast, TURN grabbed national headlines with the revelation that PG&E had requested and received $5 million in customer funding to pay for repairs to segment 132 in San Bruno, which had been identified as high risk. Sections of the pipe were scheduled for replacement in 2009 but not done.

Coincidentally, that same year the company found nearly $5 million extra customer dollars to spend on bonuses for 6 of its most highly paid executives. TURN said at the time that PG&E’s decision making appeared to be driven by greed. But it was even worse than that. While PG&E put off the repairs, it was spiking the pressure on that same line. Numerous PG&E witnesses confirmed what internal emails entered into evidence showed, that PG&E was determined to find a way to justify higher pressure- even if it meant bending the rules a bit.

PG&E already knew that there were 33 leaks on the line – and knew its process for identifying leaks was inadequate- a fact that witness David Aguiar said he flagged for a supervisor, only to be told the problem “should not be advertised.”

In one email entered into evidence, a PG&E engineer said there were “tons of errors … in the database related to the San Bruno and other nearby lines. Another said of PG&E’s geographic Information system “We do not trust GIS to be correct…but we’ve got to trust something,”

TURN and our allies at the City of San Bruno have already won penalties against P&GE for its shoddy record-keeping practices, which meant key information about welds, leaks and defects was either missing or made up. But even we have been shocked by the lax attitudes that apparently pervade PG&E.

“There are sections of Line 132 that have suspected manufacturing threats,” a PG&E executive wrote in one of the memos. Yet witness David Aguiar testified that it was routine to fudge the date of manufacture with the date of installation. Engineer Todd Arnett testified he knew there might be manufacturing defects on Line 132, and knew it was missing numerous records, but did not investigate further.

PG&E appears to have screwed up every step of the way, with inadequate records, inadequate testing, inadequate repair work and inadequate spending. And while all of these problems were the subject of numerous internal emails, apparently no one put it all together and sounded the alarm.

PG&E’s neglect of its pipelines was undoubtedly a crime, and one the company should be penalized for to the full extent of the law. But that neglect caused the deaths of 8 people and destroyed the homes and health of the people of San Bruno. And, regardless of what can and cannot be said in the courtroom, that is what makes PG&E a criminal in the eyes of the public and causes continuing anxiety and fear among its customers.