Traverse City Record-Eagle

Business

April 28, 2011

Feds examine Califorinia gas explosion

SAN FRANCISCO — Federal prosecutors are seeking thousands of pages of documents from California authorities as they probe a deadly gas pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb, The Associated Press has learned.

Prosecutors have requested a vast array of records, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s maps, reports and emergency plans, in a broad inquiry into last year's blast that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes, according to letters the AP obtained through a public records request to state regulators.

Josh Eaton, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, confirmed Wednesday that prosecutors in the San Francisco office were looking into the explosion but declined to offer any details.

Relatives of those who died in the gas-fueled fireball that swept through the San Bruno neighborhood on the evening of Sept. 9 said they hoped the federal probe would hold accountable those responsible for the accident.

"It's comforting to hear that they're finally looking into this, and it's about time," said Chris Torres, whose 81-year-old mother, Elizabeth Torres, died and whose two sisters were badly burned in the inferno. "Somebody should pay for this."

The federal government's examination of the blast came as numerous state and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies pursue their own investigations. At least 50 people have sued PG&E, claiming the company was negligent in maintaining its pipes, and several people have filed wrongful death suits.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to pinpoint what caused the pipeline rupture, but investigators suspect it may have burst under high pressure.

Eaton did not clarify the scope or intent of the federal probe, but letters show the U.S. Attorney's Office is reviewing documents that detail a wide range of possible factors. Those include everything from PG&E's seismic upgrades of transmission lines to reports on the type of pressure tests used to justify that the company's lines were running safely, according to the prosecutors' recent request for documents to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Such a voluminous records request will probably lead to criminal charges, said John McKay, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted a pipeline company after a ruptured line spilled more than 225,000 gallons of gasoline into creeks running through a public park in Bellingham, Wash., and killed three people.

The federal investigation of the Olympic Pipe Line Co. explosion in 1999 ultimately resulted in prison or probation terms for three company officials and a settlement requiring $112 million in penalties and safety improvements.

"I would find it hard to believe that given the set of facts in San Bruno, there isn't an active criminal investigation," said McKay, who now teaches constitutional law at Seattle University School of Law. "With a tragedy of this scope, it's highly likely that someone failed and failed miserably, and perhaps failed criminally." PG&E spokesman Joe Molica did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking comment.

Company executives previously said the utility had launched an initiative to strengthen the safety of its natural gas transmission system and has cooperated fully with federal, state and local investigators. PG&E also has not identified the cause of the blast.

Federal transportation officials cited the San Bruno blast, as well other recent fatal explosions in Pennsylvania, last month as they called for the industry to speed up efforts to repair and replace aging oil and gas lines. State officials also are seeking public input on how to strengthen crucial safety rules.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, state regulators, and company representatives are set to update residents later Wednesday on their progress toward reform and recovery at a town hall meeting in a senior center overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who has said his office is cooperating with federal prosecutors, said the way forward will depend on what caused the explosion.

"I don't care what we come up with through reading all these documents. If the NTSB gives an explanation saying there is nothing there for criminal or civil enforcement, then that is a lynchpin," Wagstaffe said. "Right now everybody is just trying to read as many records as we can, and waiting to hear what caused this."

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