United States

Prosecutor Says PG&E Values Profits Over Safety

Opening statements in the federal pipeline safety case against PG&E on Friday had government lawyers slamming the company as choosing profits over safety before the deadly San Bruno blast in 2010.

The company's lead attorney countered by characterizing the government's case as overblown and saying company engineers were just doing their best in the face of complex regulations imposed before the explosion. Eight people were killed and an entire neighborhood was destroyed from the blast on Sept. 9, 2010.

Outside court, Sue Bullis, who lost her 17-year-old son, her husband and his mother in the blast, said she hopes for justice out of the federal case. "I have faith that the justice system and the jury will do right by our families," she said.

Rene Morales lost her daughter, Jessica. "We grieve every day," she said. "There's no taking that away."

In her opening statement, federal prosecutor Hallie Hoffman portrayed PG&E as a company that valued profits over safety. She said the company simply ignored federal regulations that required inspections of older, untested pipelines.

"PG&E knew exactly what it had to do," she told the jury. "It just didn't want to do it."

The company, she said, "did not want" to perform expensive high pressure water tests that regulations call for when operators lack key records or in the event of pressure surges beyond allowable levels.

Instead, she said, the company relied on a method that can only check its lines for rust, not damage from pressure surges.

"This is a case about these deliberate and illegal choices and the cover up of those choices," she said. That coverup, she told the panel, involved the company telling federal accident investigators it did not have a policy in place to allow it to avoid costly inspections otherwise called for by law.

The company's attorney, Steven Bauer, countered that PG&E engineers were simply doing their best to serve customers and keep gas flowing in the face of complex regulatory mandates.

"These people were doing their level best -- they are not criminals, they did not commit crimes," he told the jury.

Bauer stressed that none of the alleged violations had anything to do with the blast.

Bauer repeatedly drew the ire of U.S. Judge Thelton Henderson for making arguments to the jury instead of sticking to the evidence.

"It's a fine line and you've crossed it," Henderson warned.

Bullis said outside court that she could not stomach the company's legal arguments.

"It made me sick to hear how their employees were trying to do their best -- well they didn't do their best six years ago."

Court testimony continues Tuesday.

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