PG&E ‘Unsafe’ Actions, ‘Dismal’ Prevention, Caused Wildfires

But judge decides PG&E's main focus will primarily be tree-trimming, not inspecting its power grid.

by George Avalos, Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) / March 7, 2019
TNS

(TNS) — PG&E's "unsafe conduct" caused a gas explosion in San Bruno and several fatal Northern California wildfires, but a federal judge will allow PG&E to primarily focus on tree-trimming rather than be forced to launch a complete inspection of its power grid.

"The judge's actions don't really ensure the safety of the system," said Mike Danko, a Redwood City-based attorney who represents some Northern California wildfire victims. "I guess this is a first step towards safety."

Nevertheless, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who is supervising PG&E's probation in the wake of its criminal conviction for felonies it committed before and after a deadly gas explosion in San Bruno, blamed PG&E's deficient safety efforts for causing both the San Bruno disasters and a string of lethal wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018.

"The essence of the problem is that the offender's unsafe conduct led to a deadly pipeline explosion and to six felony convictions," U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup wrote in his order, referring to the San Bruno explosion that PG&E caused in 2010 that eventually resulted in being found guilty by a federal jury in 2016.

Referencing the role that PG&E's equipment played in the fatal wildfires of 2017 and 2018, Judge Alsup added, "Now, the offender's unsafe conduct has led to recurring deadly wildfires caused by its electrical system."

A series of infernos scorched the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in October 2017, and 13 months later in November 2018, a wildfire roared through Butte County and essentially destroyed the town of Paradise.

It is "probable" that state investigators will determine that PG&E's equipment ignited the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, PG&E disclosed on Feb. 28 in its annual earnings report. Previously, PG&E's equipment was determined to be the cause of 17 of the blazes of 2017.

"PG&E's performance with respect to vegetation management has been dismal," the judge stated in his proposed order.

Judge Alsup, who is supervising the aftermath of PG&E's conviction and how the company is complying with the requirement of its probation, issued a proposed order with an array of requirements that would impose new conditions for the company's probation.

For the moment, PG&E won't be obliged to bury or insulate its power lines that are most at risk. And the judge delayed any decisions about ordering the utility to de-energize lines when hazardous conditions emerge such as when high winds are expected to race through tinder-dry regions.

"It seemed that the judge had the picture the system isn't safe and PG&E can't be allowed to burn people alive any longer and he was going to take drastic actions," Danko, the attorney, said. "But the judge wasn't as aggressive as I thought he would be."

The judge ordered PG&E to reply by noon on March 22 to convince Alsup not to impose the new probation requirements. Alsup also set a hearing for April 5 in San Francisco's federal court regarding the situation.

"PG&E must fully comply with all state and federal regulations and laws concerning management of trees and shrubs near its electricity equipment, as well as all rules for how far away the vegetation must be from the company's power infrastructure, the judge ordered.

The utility also was obliged by Judge Alsup to "fully comply" with the specific targets the company set out in its latest wildfire mitigation plan for 2019.

"Regular, unannounced inspections of PG&E's vegetation management efforts and equipment inspection, enhancement, and repair efforts" will be conducted by a federal monitor who was tasked to supervise PG&E's compliance with the requirements of its probation in the wake of its conviction, the judge ruled.

The company was also ordered to maintain "traceable, verifiable, accurate, and complete records" of its vegetation management. The records would have to be provided to the federal monitor on the first of each month.

"PG&E shall ensure that sufficient resources, financial and personnel, including contractors and employees, are allocated to achieve the foregoing" vegetation management and wildfire prevention efforts, Judge Alsup stated in his order, issued during the evening of March 5.

The company would be required to hire and train its own employees to clear and trim trees and shrubs if it can't find enough outside personnel.

"To ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for this purpose, PG&E may not issue any dividends until it is in compliance with all applicable vegetation management requirements as set forth," Judge Alsup ordered in the preliminary ruling.

PG&E's dividend payments to shareholders totaled $1.92 billion over the course of 2016 and 2017 — money that could have been spent on wildfire prevention and other safety measures — the judge pointed out in the order.

It takes years, the judge asserted, for trees to grow tall enough to pose a threat to the company's power lines. As a result, regular inspections should be able to spot hazards before they might touch the equipment.

"PG&E is committed to completing the work outlined in its recently submitted Wildfire Safety Plan," said James Noonan, a company spokesman. "With respect to the court's latest order, we will respond within the time frame requested."

In a late January court filing, PG&E warned it would have to spend $75 billion to $150 billion, hire 650,000 workers — and increase monthly utility bills by the stunning amount of five times their current average levels — were it forced to comply with the judge's prior proposals for a massive maintenance and inspection effort for the electricity grid.

Overshadowed by a forbidding mountain of liabilities, along with the prospect of $30 billion in wildfire-related claims, PG&E filed on Jan. 29 for bankruptcy, listing $51.69 billion in debts, to ward off its creditors while it attempts to reorganize its shattered finances.

The judge noted that PG&E has in the past resorted to arm-twisting of regulators and politicians when rules weren't to the utility's liking.

"If state or federal law is too strict, PG&E's remedy would be to seek the relaxation of such laws through its well-oiled lobbying efforts," Judge Alsup stated.

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