Federal judge criticizes PG&E's wildfire record, demands action

Dan Noyes Image
Thursday, March 7, 2019
Federal judge criticizes PG&E's wildfire record, demands action
A federal court judge is escalating his criticism of PG&E, calling its efforts to prevent wildfires "dismal" and ordering the utility to take action.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A federal court judge is escalating his criticism of PG&E, calling its efforts to prevent wildfires "dismal" and ordering the utility to take action.

Judge William Alsup is overseeing PG&E's probation after a jury convicted them of six counts related to the San Bruno pipeline explosion.

The point of Alsup's order, in his words, is "to protect the public from further death and destruction resulting from PG&E-caused wildfires."

RELATED: PG&E admits power line 'probable cause' of deadly Camp Fire, reports big losses for 2018

The order's eight pages is a scathing commentary on PG&E's recent history. Judge Alsup writes "the offender's unsafe conduct" led to the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that killed 8 people and destroyed dozens of homes, and that "now, the offender's unsafe conduct has led to recurring deadly wildfires caused by its electrical system."

Santa Clara Law Professor Catherine Sandoval was a California Public Utilities Commissioner overseeing the utility.

She tells the I-Team's Dan Noyes, "I think (Judge Alsup) is taking steps to propose modification of their probation to ensure that they don't cause additional fires."

The judge ordered PG&E not to issue any dividends to investors, until it does more to keep trees and limbs from falling onto power lines and sparking wildfires. Alsup wrote, "PG&E knowingly failed to trim or remove thousands of trees it had already identified as posing a hazard" while paying dividends of $1 billion in 2016 and $921 million in 2017.

Sandoval says, "I am hoping for an attitude change in PG&E because they have come back a couple of times and said this is impossible, this is overly ambitious."

Alsup ordered PG&E to "fully comply" with state laws and its own wildfire mitigation plan to keep power lines clear from trees and limbs.

A court monitor will assess PG&E's safety work through unannounced inspections, and the utility must "maintain traceable, verifiable, accurate, and complete records of its vegetation management efforts."

Sandoval tells the I-Team, "I think there is going to be a lot that needs to be done to make sure that PG&E is keeping and producing accurate records, because they have a very bad track record of doing exactly that."

PG&E emailed this statement to the I-Team:

"PG&E shares the court's commitment to safety and agrees that we must all continue to work together with urgency to address the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California.

To that end, PG&E is committed to completing the work outlined in its recently submitted Wildfire Safety Plan, which details a variety of measures we are taking to help keep our customers and communities safe. We continue to work with regulators, lawmakers and our community partners across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for our state.
With respect to the court's latest order, we will respond within the time frame requested."

Judge Alsup is asking for comment on his order, a final decision to be made at a hearing next month.

By the way, the judge postponed deciding whether PG&E should be required to cut power when high fire danger conditions exist. We'll stay on top of it.

More stories related to PG&E and wildfires here.

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