PG&E files to dismiss charges in San Bruno blast

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) -- PG&E has filed a barrage of motions in federal court in San Francisco, seeking dismissal of all of the 28 criminal charges it faces for alleged obstruction of justice and pipeline safety violations.

The San Francisco-based utility's lawyers filed the five motions in U.S. District Court on Labor Day evening on Monday, two days before the five-year anniversary of a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010.

Eight people died, 66 others were injured and dozens of houses were destroyed or damaged in an explosion and fire when a high-pressure PG&E natural gas transmission pipeline segment in San Bruno ruptured.

The cause was a defective seam weld in a pipeline segment that was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The federal criminal charges were lodged in a superseding U.S. grand jury indictment last year. The utility is charged with one count of obstructing justice in the NTSB investigation and 27 counts of violating record-keeping and management requirements of the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act.

Federal prosecutors are seeking a fine of up to $1.13 billion if PG&E is convicted of all charges. A jury trial in the court of U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson is scheduled to begin March 8, 2016.

In a separate state administrative proceeding, the California Public Utilities Commission in April imposed a record $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E for violations related to the San Bruno explosion, record-keeping practices and pipeline operations in highly populated areas.

The five federal court motions filed Monday seek dismissal of all of the criminal charges for several different reasons and many of the counts are covered by more than one motion.

One motion argues that the 27 safety violation counts should be dismissed because the state of California, through the CPUC, has exclusive authority to regulate pipeline safety in the state.

"How is it that the federal government can seek a duplicate penalty after it has officially certified that the state has exclusive authority to regulate pipeline safety on intrastate pipelines in California?" the brief asks.

Another motion disputes prosecutors' method of calculating the potential $1.13 billion penalty. PG&E lawyers wrote that prosecutors' proposed method would "profoundly complicate and extend" what will already be "one of the more complex criminal trials ever tried in this district."

Other motions seek dismissal of various counts on grounds of duplication of charges and allegedly incorrect grand jury instructions.

A hearing on the motions is scheduled before Henderson on Oct. 19.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Abraham Simmons said, "We have no comment, but we will be responding to the motions in court in a timely way."

In July, PG&E filed a motion seeking dismissal of seven counts on the ground that the statute of limitations has run. Prosecutors argued in an opposition filing last month that the violations were ongoing and thus within the statute of limitations.

Henderson is scheduled to hear arguments on that motion on Sept. 21.