Pacific Gas & Electric pleads not guilty to 12 criminal counts in fatal California pipe blast

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Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pleaded not guilty Monday to a dozen felony charges stemming from alleged safety violations in a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that leveled a suburban neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As survivors of the blast looked on, attorneys for California's largest utility entered the plea in federal court in San Francisco to 12 felony violations of federal pipeline safety laws.

Federal Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero granted prosecutors' request to increase the maximum fine PG&E could face to more than $6 million, if the court decides the company somehow benefited financially or saved money as a result of criminal misconduct.

San Bruno city officials hailed the ruling as a positive step and said they believed company officials should be charged as well. No individual PG&E officials or employees have been charged criminally, but prosecutors could file superseding indictments naming individuals if the investigation warrants.

"We look forward to PG&E being fined the maximum amount allowed by law to send a message not only to that corporation but to the industry," San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said. "Individuals within the corporation certainly had responsibility for making decisions ... that led to the disaster in San Bruno."

Prosecutors allege that PG&E knowingly relied on erroneous and incomplete information when assessing the safety of the pipeline that eventually ruptured and sparked a fireball that destroyed 38 homes, killed eight people and injured dozens of others. Nearly four years later, the neighborhood is still recovering.

PG&E said in a statement it does not believe any employee intentionally violated federal regulations.

"The legal process will ensure that all of the facts related to this tragic event are fully reviewed," the statement said.

It is rare but not unprecedented for a pipeline company to be charged with criminal safety laws.

U.S. prosecutors previously investigated Olympic Pipe Line Co. in Washington state after an explosion in 1999 killed three people. That blast was caused by a ruptured line that spilled more than 225,000 gallons of gasoline into creeks running through a public park in Bellingham.

That U.S. investigation ultimately resulted in prison or probation terms for three company officials and a settlement requiring $112 million in penalties and safety improvements.