On Tuesday, federal Judge Thelton Henderson reduced the potential maximum fines to be paid by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for a 2010 gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno, California, from $562 million to $6 million.
The reduction order came after the prosecuting U.S. Attorney’s Office requested it in a filling. Neither the judge nor the Attorney’s office specified reason for reducing the fines.
For over a month, the court has heard testimonies and engaged juror participation several days prior to the order. The jury will determine whether PG&E is guilty of 11 charges of pipeline safety regulations neglect and one charge of restricting federal regulators from investigating the catastrophe.
Testimonies and independent inspectors suggest that the disaster was a result of careless maintenance, failure to test the pipeline and a dearth of proper record keeping, all of which allowed the fossil fuel provider to pinch pennies. The testifiers also attributed the unfortunate event, in part, to poor oversight by the Public Utilities Commission.
“Information that was being requested of PG&E was not being delivered,” testified Stephen Klejst of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“PG&E knew that its records were inaccurate and were missing information,” stated Hallie Hoffman, an assistant litigator for the prosecutors. “This case is about deliberate and illegal choices, and about the cover-up of those choices.”
The utility company’s lawyer, Steven Bauer, acknowledge the devastation caused by the incident but defended PG&E by saying that it didn’t mean to misinform investigators (which it did by “accidentally” sending an unofficial draft of its risk analysis and mitigation strategies), didn’t fully understand the regulations and its employees were doing their best to operate the facilities.
The fines are meant to discourage corporations from misconduct said Brandon Garrett, a corporate law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, about the case. “Obviously, if a company does not have to pay a fine that is larger than its gains, then its crime becomes profitable.”