After two years of legal wrangling, the federal case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company on charges of violating pipeline safety laws and obstructing the federal probe of the 2010 San Bruno blast will begin Friday.
The case was set to start on Thursday, but got pushed back a day after the judge removed 10 juror prospects from the pool and the replacement candidates were questioned by both sides.
The panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was sworn in Thursday afternoon, ending two and a half days of jury selection, and intense legal disputes over what evidence the government can present during trial.
Federal prosecutors say they expect their opening statement to last only about 30 minutes, but PG&E's lead lawyer, Steve Bauer, told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that he expects his presentation -- complete with slides -- will take 2 1/2 hours.
The company faces 12 separate charges of pipeline safety violations --everything from shoddy record keeping to failing to properly assess its pipelines, and failing to inspect them after potentially hazardous pressure surges.
The company has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Although one of the pipelines referred to in several counts is the same one that exploded in September 2010 in San Bruno, prosecutors are not arguing that any specific federal regulatory violation triggered the blast.
In court papers, the company has asserted that it is the victim of a smear campaign by prosecutors eager to pin blame after the San Bruno disaster.
Prosecutors counter that the company made critical decisions without proper records and made those decision based on profit, not safety. It is not clear whether the utility will put on its own defense or whether it will rely on undermining prosecutorial witness testimony.
If convicted, the company could face up to a half billion dollars in federal penalties. Prosecutors estimate that sum is twice the amount the company saved by not heeding the regulations. That fine would be on top of the $1.6 billion the company paid based on a litany of regulatory violations related to the San Bruno disaster. The trial is slated to take six to eight weeks.