California DAs Could Sue Utilities for Unkept Power Lines Under New Proposal

A proposal that would allow counties to fine utilities like PG&E that fail to clear brush from power lines up to $100,000 per violation clears a key committee in the Assembly. Supporters argued the state’s largest utilities continue to shirk their tree-trimming responsibilities despite starting a recent rash of deadly wildfires.

This Nov. 15, 2018, aerial file photo shows the remains of residences leveled by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Recruiting district attorneys in the state’s wildfire fight, California lawmakers on Wednesday approved legislation allowing local prosecutors to sue utilities for not clearing power lines.    

Coined the Utility Accountability and Wildfire Prevention Act of 2021, Assembly Bill 21 permits the attorney general or district attorneys to slap utilities with fines of up to $100,000 for not keeping their power lines free of vegetation and debris. In addition, if regulators deem a fire started due to unkept lines, courts could order utilities to pay up $1,000 per acre of charred land.

Democratic Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan said it was time for the state to add a new enforcement option to further crack down on utilities and subcontractors unable or unwilling to fireproof power lines. She noted nearly 10,000 wildfires sparked in 2020 and argued a potent duo of climate change and negligence will continue to plague the Golden State.   

“This heightened risk of fire is the result of climate change and only exacerbated by the decades of vegetation mismanagement by the investor-owned utilities,” said Bauer-Kahan.

Narrowly passing its first legislative test, AB 21 cleared the Assembly Natural Resources Committee in a partyline 6-3 vote.

The measure is inspired by the recent stretch of deadly and catastrophic wildfires and the carelessness of its largest utilities, chiefly Pacific Gas & Electric, which continues to spark massive fires.   

California has experienced its three worst wildfire seasons since just 2017, including last year when an estimated 4.1 million acres burned. Highlighted by the August Complex Fire which became the first California blaze to exceed 1 million acres, the amount of land charred in 2020 doubled the previous record set in 2018.

Meanwhile PG&E, which pleaded guilty to dozens of counts of involuntary manslaughter after its faulty equipment started the deadliest fire in state history, continues to struggle maintaining its lines in rural fire prone regions.

On Monday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, determined the Zogg Fire, which killed four people and burned more than 56,000 acres in Shasta County this past September, was caused by a gray pine tree that hit PG&E’s power lines. PG&E previously reported that tree may have been flagged for removal in 2018 but was never taken down.

During the utility’s recent high-profile bankruptcy proceedings, court-appointed monitors highlighted hundreds of cases where PG&E or its contractors failed to trim or clear potentially problematic trees near power lines. The monitors also identified a litany of record keeping woes within PG&E.

While both Cal Fire and the Public Utilities Commission have existing authority to pursue penalties or investigate faulty utility equipment — for example a $1.9 billion fine against PG&E for starting deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018 — AB 21 would rope in the attorney general or district attorneys.

The bill advanced to the Assembly Judiciary Committee but its legislative fate appears shaky.

Both Republicans and Democrats said they were worried about tacking on as the Legislature has already passed a series of bills in recent years intended to increase oversight over utilities’ vegetation management.    

Assemblyman Devon Mathis raised the possibility of counties refusing to issue utilities permits needed to trim trees on private or protected land, and then coming back later with a lawsuit. The Republican lawmaker voted against AB 21, saying it could be taken advantage of by unscrupulous counties.

“A county could literally hold back a permit and have the DA go in and start a prosecutorial process and it turns into a money scheme,” said Mathis. “We’ve got to see this process we worked on actually take root.”

Other committee members countered more should be done, as despite the Legislature’s recent efforts, utilities continue to flub when it comes to fireproofing power lines.

Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone scoffed at the utilities’ argument that a convoluted permitting process is preventing them from trimming. He claimed his home county of Monterey has made it much easier on PG&E to obtain permits, yet the utility is still failing.

“PG&E is kind of checking boxes, but not being effective in how they’re managing their responsibility with respect to public safety,” said Stone. “If we’re giving some authority to local prosecutors to go after bad actors I have absolutely no problem with that; something is going to have to wake up the utilities.”

Alameda and Napa county district attorney’s offices testified in support of the bill, saying AB 21 would provide a powerful new remedy for negligent utilities.

Meanwhile the Coalition of California Utility Employees, PG&E and Southern California Edison were opposed, calling it a duplicative proposal that could lead to higher consumer energy costs.

Under the amended bill, half of any collected penalty money would go toward a state fund to be used for wildfire prevention and fire planning, with the rest funneled to the state’s general fund or to the county or city responsible for the action. Fines must be issued within four years of violations with the new statute scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2022. The bill additionally requires utilities be notified and given a “reasonable period” to cure violations, while a state judge would have final say over potential penalties.

“We need to put safety before profits and in the face of this crisis, we have to increase enforcement,” concluded Bauer-Kahan.   

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