Federal Monitor Finds Serious Flaws in PG&E’s Wildfire Prevention Work

The Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018. (AP file photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A court-appointed monitor overseeing Pacific Gas and Electric’s wildfire prevention work as part of its criminal probation says its contractors are missing trees that should be removed or trimmed and that its record-keeping system is dangerously flawed.

The monitor’s July 26 report, made public in a court filing Wednesday, identified 3,280 potential risk trees that PG&E’s enhanced vegetation management team appeared to miss. The missed hazard trees averaged 61 per mile over 71 circuit miles inspected.

PG&E told the monitor it had provided “clarifying guidance” to its contractors on risk tree identification by April 1, but an analysis found little improvement in the number of trees identified and worked on after that date.

The monitor stated that its inspections “demonstrated that the company’s retraining was ineffective.”

On July 12, the monitor found a tree within inches of a primary conductor. The tree’s leaves were singed from coming into contact with the high-voltage conductor during wind gusts. It had been identified for “routine compliance work” in November 2018, and a contractor reported the work as completed in February 2019, even though the work was not completed.

The monitor reported similar incidents to PG&E, which said it banned certain tree workers that falsely reported work as complete and held discussions with contractors to prevent such incidents in the future.

The monitor also identified serious flaws in PG&E’s systems for recording, tracking and assigning work. It called the systems unreliable and inconsistent.

PG&E’s database, Arc Collector, is supposed to serve as a central repository for its vegetation management work, but it includes missing and inaccurate data on the locations of conductors and hazardous trees, according to the monitor.

The monitor called the record-keeping problems particularly troubling, given that five of PG&E’s felony convictions were related to record-keeping defects in its gas operations.

“Defective records have been a root cause of PG&E safety problems for many years,” the report stated. “This is an issue that can directly lead to tragic injuries and deaths, as well as related widespread property damage.”

PG&E has been on a five-year probation since January 2017 when a federal jury convicted it of six felonies related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.

The monitor also found 127 problems with trees that were reviewed by PG&E’s post-work verification team, “the last line of defense” that is supposed to catch hazards missed by pre-inspectors and tree workers.

The monitor recommended that PG&E revamp its training for contractors, launch a more robust review process for contractors and consider withholding payments from contractors until they fully record their work in the Arc Collector database.

PG&E said in a statement Wednesday that it shares the court’s focus on reducing wildfire risk, and it vowed to “work transparently and cooperatively” with the federal monitor.

“We understand and recognize the serious concerns raised by the Monitor and we are taking immediate action to address these issues, which are consistent with our own internal reviews,” PG&E spokesman Ari Vanrenen said.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the company’s criminal probation, ordered PG&E to respond to the monitor’s report by Sept. 3. He also scheduled a court hearing to discuss the issue on Sept. 17.

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