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Fatal San Bruno Gas Line Explosion Looms Large At PG&E Trial

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- Jury selection has began in the federal obstruction-of-justice and pipeline-safety-violation trial of utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with criminal charges that came to light after the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion.

The trial in the court of U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson is expected to last six to eight weeks.

The San Francisco-based utility faces 13 charges. One is obstructing justice in a National Transportation Safety Board probe of the fatal explosion of a high-pressure natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno in 2010.

Eight people died, 66 were injured, and dozens of houses were destroyed and damaged in the explosion and ensuing fire on Sept. 9, 2010.

The NTSB concluded the cause was a defective seam weld in a pipeline segment that was incorrectly listed in PG&E records as seamless. The segment was part of Line 132, which runs from Milpitas to San Francisco through San Bruno.

The other 12 counts are charges of violations of record-keeping and pipeline-maintenance requirements of the U.S. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act for several Peninsula and East Bay pipelines, including Line 132. If convicted of all charges, PG&E could be fined up to $562 million.

"We believe PG&E is guilty of a dereliction of its duty to protect the citizens of San Bruno and the citizens of California," San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said in a statement. "We hope this trial against PG&E will bring justice and transparency, which the utility has not achieved on its own."

PG&E replied saying the utility was focused on "re-earning their (PG&E customers) trust by leading in safety, reliability, affordability and clean energy."

"Regardless of the next legal steps, we want our customers to know we are focused on the future and on re-earning their trust by leading in safety, reliability, affordability and clean energy. We've made unprecedented progress and we're committed to maintaining this focus," the company said.

The jury selection began Tuesday with a pool of 96 potential jurors. Of those, 82 said on a written questionnaire that they had heard of the San Bruno explosion and 41 of those said they had negative or extremely negative views of PG&E.

PG&E's defense attorneys asked Henderson to dismiss all 41, but the judge excused only four and said he wanted to question others in more detail. He also dismissed about 10 pool members for hardship reasons.

Although the federal investigation stemmed from allegations of record-keeping deficiencies in the wake of the San Bruno explosion, the only count in the 2014 grand jury indictment of PG&E that explicitly mentions the blast is the obstruction-of-justice charge.

In several pretrial motions, PG&E attorneys strenuously urged Henderson to bar or limit evidence about the explosion, arguing that it could be "highly prejudicial" to a jury.

The utility's most recent motion, filed on the eve of trial on Monday, asked the judge either to further restrict testimony about San Bruno or to move the obstruction-of-justice charge to a separate trial.

"There is a significant risk the jury will be misled into believing that this case is about the terrible accident.....That is not what this case is about," PG&E attorneys wrote in their filing on Monday. They said the case is about allegations of regulatory violations.

Henderson denied the motion for a separate trial in a ruling from the bench, according to U.S. attorney's office spokesman Abraham Simmons.

In earlier decisions, Henderson took the middle ground on San Bruno evidence. He said prosecutors can't argue that safety-law violations caused the explosion because that allegation is not part of the obstruction charge.

He barred federal attorneys from showing videos of the flames and the victims, playing panicked 911 calls, presenting testimony about the number of deaths or showing jurors a section of the ruptured pipe.

Prosecutors had proposed to display the 28-foot-long, 30-inch-diameter pipe segment to jurors on a flatbed truck outside the Federal Building courthouse in the Civic Center.

But Henderson also wrote in an April ruling, "The San Bruno explosion is unquestionably relevant to all thirteen counts that remain to be tried in this case."

He said prosecutors could present evidence about the facts of the deadly explosion, show a map of destroyed and damaged houses, and present certain witnesses from the NTSB and other government agencies.

TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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