The defense and prosecution traded last minute jabs in final arguments Wednesday before the jury began deliberating the pipeline safety and obstruction charges against PG&E.
The company stands accused of a dozen charges, 11 pipeline safety violations and single count of obstructing the federal probe into the 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno that left eight dead.
“All I’m asking you today,” PG&E’s lawyer Steve Bauer told the jury in his final argument, “is one thing for PG&E and its employees – fair and equal justice under the law.”
Bauer reminded the jury that it has an “awesome responsibility…but I know you can do it.”
He stressed to the jury that “it’s just not fair to label somebody, a corporation, a criminal” based on decisions made by intentioned engineers struggling with historic records issues and complicated regulations.
It’s easy, he said, “to prosecute a logo with a slogan.”
Prosecutors, Bauer said, had sunk to using such “slogans” as “profits over safety” that offered “no context, no interpretation -- just slapping around sound bites.”
“You really should not have a trial on a sound bite – it really doesn’t carry the government’s burden” of proving allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
He portrayed the company’s engineers as well-intentioned professionals who were grappling with flawed and contradictory rules.
In her final argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hartley West called on the jury to “carefully examine all the evidence over the last six weeks.”
“The right verdict is guilty on all counts,” she said.
In summing up the case, West said the fundamental question is what the company’s engineers did with the limited information they had about the gas pipelines.
“This case isn’t about whether these are good people or bad people or whether they were good engineers or bad engineers,” West said, “or even whether PG&E is a good company or a bad company.”
At the heart of the case, she said, is the evidence that PG&E’s had knowledge that it was obligated to perform costly pipeline inspections under the government regulations.
“There is ample evidence that PG&E knew what the code required,” West said, yet its engineers “intentionally or voluntarily did not do what the code required.”
West pointed to documents related to dozens of apparent instances where PG&E failed to earmark pipelines it considered at-risk for costly inspections that regulations call for should pressure surge above allowed levels.
The regulations, she said, call on operators to pump high pressure water to check for damage following such surges.
Instead, PG&E put a policy on paper to avoid such inspections and carried it out by not inspecting. She said that one engineer testified that the company had opted to “wait” and thus not earmark or prioritize those lines for proper inspection.
“That’s what they prioritized – waiting.”
She scoffed on the suggestion that the engineers were somehow confused by what was called for under the regulations. She said it is clear that “over means over” and that any amount of pressure surge on at-risk line must trigger the costly inspections.
“They weren’t confused – they were only confused for litigation purposes,” she said, noting that the company’s representatives never sought guidance from regulators about the regulations either before or after the San Bruno gas explosion.
While the regulations dictated costly tests, West said, PG&E stuck to its largely ineffective but cheaper method to check for pipeline corrosion, known as external corrosion direct assessment or ECDA.
“What did they chose? ECDA. ECDA every time,” West said.
The method cannot inspect for damage inflicted during pressure surges, she said – only high pressure water or automated devices that verify lines are not damaged by pressure surges.
When federal regulators started asking questions after the San Bruno blast and the company faced an audit, she said, PG&E disavowed its policy of only inspecting lines following gas pressure surges of ten percent beyond allowable levels.
They got their lawyers to write a letter asserting that the very document they had just provided to investigators was an unapproved draft.
“Was that misleading? Yes that was misleading,” West declared, saying there was ample evidence to support the fact that the company had been giving itself a 10 percent buffer.
The prosecutor scoffed at the idea that engineers were somehow making calls on the company’s most at-risk lines based on data and science.
“These were business decisions, these were business decisions,” she said.
Jury deliberations will resume Thursday morning.