San Bruno still recovering five years after deadly pipeline explosion

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ByVic Lee KGO logo
Thursday, September 10, 2015
San Bruno residents, mayor speak out on deadly explosion anniversary
On the 5th anniversary of the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion, the city's mayor said this wasn't an accident and someone should go to jail for it.

SAN BRUNO, Calif. (KGO) -- Five years ago Wednesday, the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno was shattered in a deadly explosion from a PG&E pipeline.

Eight people died, 66 more 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.

Some residents told ABC7 News that when they look over the San Bruno neighborhood they still see the empty lots where houses once stood and wonder what's taking so long in the rebuilding process. San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane points out a lot of the work that has been done is infrastructure underground so you can't see it, but said the hard part of the rebuilding effort is behind them.

Ruane says his city has come a long way in the rebuilding effort. He held a press conference Wednesday on the fifth anniversary of the explosion saying that 22 homes have been rebuilt, 10 more are under construction and four other lots are slated to become a park.

The mayor also pointed out that a huge part of his recovery effort has been fighting for accountability from PG&E and the CPUC, which regulates the utility. He said the fight for transparency continues pointing out over the weekend PG&E filed a motion seeking dismissal of all 28 criminal charges the agency faces from the San Bruno blast. "I think it's another indication that PG&E is not taking full responsibility and accountability for their actions," Ruane said.

Patrick Yu's home sits right across the street from the epicenter, which is now marked by a new manhole cover. His home is about 150 feet from where the 30-inch gas line burst.

The explosion awakened Yu from his nap. "My roof, top of my roof fell down. I almost died that day," he said.

All that was left of Yu's house was the garage, so he had to rebuild his home.

The home on the other side of Yu's was saved. Lucky for Bob McNichol firefighters took a stand in front of his house. "It was amazing. They managed to stop it here," he said.

It's been five years and McNichol wants to get on with his life. "I think I'd rather focus on positives and that's what I've chosen to do," he said.

You can still see the scars in the ravaged neighborhood. There are empty lots with construction equipment and half-finished homes.

All the time that has passed has led to frustration. "It's going to take next year or so to have a new street and new lighting, new sidewalks," San Bruno resident Jack Chiramberro said.

For the most part, the families who sued have settled their claims with PG&E, but the giant utility still has legal troubles.

PG&E says it has modernized gas operations, installed new valves, decommissioned old pipes and complied with almost all of the federal government's recommendations.

Ruane says PG&E has yet to accept full responsibility. "This was not an accident and in my mind, somebody should do some jail time for this," he said.

The cause of the deadly blast 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 blast resulted in a record $1.6 billion fine against the utility company.

PG&E 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.

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.

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.

A PG&E spokesperson said the agency will not be conducting interviews Wednesday out of respect for the victims, but points out in a written statement that PG&E has worked hard to do the right thing for victims in saying it is sorry for the tragic event.

Click here for full coverage on the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Bay City News contributed to this story.