PG&E wants Californians to believe that it has taken full responsibility for the San Bruno tragedy and that it's time to move on. Forget about last week's federal grand jury indictment on 12 criminal counts. Let the utility get back to business.
Imagine applying that logic to a driver accused of being drunk and causing an accident that killed eight people. Or an apartment owner accused of criminal negligence in a fatal fire.
Eight people died in the gas line explosion. Sixty-six people were injured. Thirty-eight homes were destroyed. Investigation after investigation showed PG&E for years put profits before safety. No one disputes the 2011 Overland Consulting audit revealing that PG&E encouraged staffers to ignore significant safety issues.
At the same time, PG&E took $150 million specified to repair gas pipelines and spent it on an executive incentive plan.
Perhaps criminal culpability ultimately will be rejected by the courts, but we sure can't blame a grand jury for wanting to pursue charges.
The indictment is aimed at PG&E as a corporation, not at any individuals. Now, we know corporations are people and all, according to the Supreme Court. But ratepayers and the residents of San Bruno deserve to know precisely how these decisions were made and who was responsible.
Attorney Melinda Haag said it best: "The citizens of Northern California deserve to have their utility providers put the safety of the community first. ... (The) indictment of PG&E for violating the minimum safety standards established by the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act reflects the company's failure to follow that very basic principle."
PG&E argues that the charges have no merit. So much for taking responsibility.
The utility has spent about $2.7 billion in safety-related work since San Bruno, and it is implementing safety measures it should have taken years ago. But California prisons are filled with people who would love to be excused from their crimes if they just said they were sorry and made financial restitution.
Our justice system doesn't work that way for individuals. This is one instance in which it seems right to treat corporations the same way.
The indictment charges that PG&E failed to properly identify potential threats to the San Bruno pipeline, failed to gather relevant data that could have forestalled the explosion, maintained flawed records and didn't accurately assess the dangers related to the line.
It's hard to argue that these things didn't happen, but proving willful violation of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act is an immense challenge. That's why these kinds of criminal cases are rare. But prosecutors apparently believe there's a basis for pursuing this one, and justice will be best served by seeing it through.