After flubbing their initial response to last September’s massive San Bruno pipeline explosion, utility Pacific Gas & Electric seemed to take responsibility for the accident, and even bought full-page ads in area newspapers proclaiming “We Apologize.” But in court filings this week, PG&E has backtracked, denying any blame for the deadly pipeline explosion and suggesting that other parties were at least partially responsible in order to dodge millions of dollars in damages from more than 100 lawsuits.

PG&E blamed third parties and even the blast victims themselves for contributing to last September’s pipeline explosion, which destroyed 38 homes, killed 8, and injured many more. The gas and electric company wrote in court filings that these victims “may have been legally responsible under a doctrine of comparative negligence (or) contributory negligence,” but did not indicate specific ways they may have been negligent. San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson called their assertions “completely surprising…It’s unfortunate that they have thrown everything plus the kitchen sink in this, to cover their legal strategy.”

PG&E claims aside, let’s look at the evidence that has surfaced over the past 9 months thanks to the work of Bay Area reporters and safety advocates.

  • In 2004, the national agency that regulates gas pipelines reported that pipeline degradation can occur with little obvious damage and required all major gas companies to conduct “risk-based assessments.” After the accident, the Wall Street Journal reported that “none of the special measures was taken in the case of the San Bruno pipeline that exploded.”
  • Between 2003 and 2010, PG&E increased pressure on gas pipelines in San Bruno to dangerous levels more than a dozen times, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The line was pushed to the federal limit of 400 pounds per square inch in December 2003 and again in 2008. Safety advocates say the 10 other pipelines that underwent similar tests could be vulnerable to future explosions.
  • The National Transportation Safey Board has repeatedly criticized PG&E for serious “record-keeping problems” which they say could lead to “potentially unsafe” pressure settings and even future pipeline explosions. In one example, PG&E initially claimed that the San Bruno pipeline in question had no ruptured seams, which was later proven false.

It’s difficult to tell whether PG&E will maintain this obstinate throughout the legal process. For now, PG&E spokeswoman Brittany Chord has called the filing “a standard part of the legal process” and said that PG&E will “continue to move forward and work to resolve the claims of all parties as quickly as possible.”

UPDATE: PG&E is now claiming that it did not blame victims for last September’s pipeline explosion. “We want it to be crystal clear that no one at PG&E would suggest that the plaintiffs or residents of San Bruno impacted by this accident are somehow at fault,” the company said in a statement.

Photo credit: smi23le