California's Public Utilities Commission is recommending that PG&E be fined $2.25 billion for the 2010 natural gas pipeline rupture and explosion that killed ten people in San Bruno, Calif. If that fine holds, it will be one of the largest in history.
It would also be the largest amount PG&E has had to pay for its negligence in the state. In 1996, the company was ordered to pay $333 million after it was found that the company had for decades polluted groundwater near Hinkley, in California's Central Valley, with a carcinogen. That case, as you likely know, inspired the movie Erin Brockovich. And as you probably now from the movie, followed a protracted legal battle during which PG&E fought to downplay its role in the contamination and the after effects.
While the fine is not yet settled in the San Bruno case, there's a good reason it's so much higher. (Even after you adjust for inflation, the new fine would be 4.5 times larger.) Quite simply, it's much harder for PG&E to argue that it wasn't at fault. CBS News reports on the proposal.
The 2010 pipeline rupture in San Bruno sparked a gas-fueled fireball that killed eight people, injured dozens more and consumed 38 homes in the quiet bedroom community.
The National Transportation Safety Board unanimously agreed in 2011 that the accident was caused by what board chairman Deborah Hersman called a "litany of failures" by PG&E, as well as weak oversight by regulators.
This new fine — again, if it somehow survives what will inevitably be a hard-fought objection from PG&E — would be one of the largest ever levied against a corporation.
Others that are in the top tier:
- $453 million levied against Barclays for manipulating interest rates ending in 2009
- $2.3 billion levied against Pfizer for illegally marketing a painkiller
- $3 billion levied against GlaxoSmithKline for promoting antidepressants for unapproved use
- $8.2 billion levied against tobacco companies in 1998 for being tobacco companies
- Up to $17.6 billion levied against BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill
Although that graph is deceptive. The figure for the tobacco companies was per year for 25 years. Meaning that at its full value, the graph should look like this:
Tobacco products, it's generally believed, have killed far, far more than ten people.