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Firefighters mop up hot spots near homes destroyed by the massive gas pipeline explosion and fire on Sept. 9, 2010 in San Bruno. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Firefighters mop up hot spots near homes destroyed by the massive gas pipeline explosion and fire on Sept. 9, 2010 in San Bruno. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

PG&E Gets $3M Fine for San Bruno Blast, Must Advertise Its Conviction on TV

PG&E Gets $3M Fine for San Bruno Blast, Must Advertise Its Conviction on TV

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Updated Thursday, 1:40 p.m.

A federal judge on Thursday imposed the maximum sentence allowed by law against Pacific Gas and Electric Company for violating pipeline safety standards before and after the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in September 2010.

At the conclusion of a long-running criminal case, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered the utility to pay a fine of $3 million, a tiny fraction of the $562 million that federal prosecutors had originally sought.

"I find the crimes at issue to be very serious and to pose great risk to the public safety," Henderson said. "Given the dismissal of allegations under the Alternative Fines Act, this is the maximum fine I’m allowed to impose by statute."

A jury last year found PG&E guilty of five counts of violating pipeline safety rules and one count of obstructing a federal investigation of the disaster that killed eight people, injured dozens more and destroyed 38 homes on Sept. 9, 2010.


San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said $3 million was "pocket change" to the utility giant, but that he was happy with other conditions of PG&E's sentence. Those include five years of probation under the watch of a court-appointed monitor and thousands of advertisements the company will broadcast publicizing "the nature of the offenses committed, the nature of the punishment imposed and the steps that will be taken to prevent the recurrence of similar offenses," according to the sentence Henderson read in court.

"An independent monitor -- we pushed for that for years, and we’re going to get that," Ruane said after the sentencing hearing. "It should hurt. PG&E should hurt. For us in San Bruno, the past is brought to us every day. ... It’s more than money. It’s more than politics. People died and we want some recognition of that. And I think the judge did that today."

The ads will have to air on the same television networks and approximate times that the company purchased during its trial, as well as in the San Francisco Chronicle and Wall Street Journal.

Henderson ordered PG&E to air approximately 12,500 of the commercials over a three-month period, up to a cost of $3 million.

"What are they doing? Why are they advertising safety when all of this happened? You know it’s kind of a slap in the face to all of us," Ruane said. "I think this will turn that feeling around to have 12,500 commercials to show, wait a minute, maybe we’re not as safe as we were projecting."

Sue Bullis, whose husband, son and mother-in-law died in the 2010 explosion, said PG&E advertisements touting the company's commitment to safety "make me a little ill."

"Of course I would have liked prison time for the high executives, but that’s not something that was before the court, and that’s sad," she said. "I thought the judgment was strong, but, you know, it’s never enough because I can never get my family back."

In a written statement on the sentence, PG&E continued to highlight safety improvements.

"We want San Bruno and all of the communities we serve to know that we at PG&E have committed ourselves to a goal of transforming this company into the safest and most reliable energy provider in America and to re-earning their trust through our actions," the statement says. "[W]e fully recognize that we will always have more work to do, regardless of the significant safety actions and investments we’ve made. We sincerely apologize to the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic explosion and we want them to know our mission and our commitment to safety will never stop."

PG&E employees also will be required to perform 10,000 hours of community service, with at least 2,000 of those hours being performed by high-level personnel, according to Henderson's reading of the sentence.

"It is strongly recommend that this service should be in the town of San Bruno to the extent possible," Henderson said. "The community service shall be geared toward giving back to communities affected by PG&E’s negligence."

Ruane said he has plenty of ideas for how PG&E can fulfill its community service.

"I think we can find a lot of things to fill 10,000 hours, believe me, especially with some high executives," he said.

Earlier, the company protested the prosecutor’s request to restructure PG&E’s bonus compensation program to prioritize safety. Attorneys for the utility argued that PG&E emphasizes safety, and that public and employee safety measures are supposed to make up 50 percent of bonus criteria. They also argued that the proposal could encourage employees to under-report safety incidents.

Henderson declined on Thursday to order the bonus restructuring.

Two years ago, the California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $1.6 billion for its role in the fatal blast. That money mostly went into safety improvements and into the state's general fund. PG&E has already settled claims amounting to nearly $500 million with San Bruno victims and families.

Read Judge Thelton Henderson's order on an independent monitor for PG&E below:

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