Feds Say California Fires Show Unclean Hands for PG&E

Flames burn inside a van as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018. Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving wildfire Thursday in Northern California, some clutching babies and pets as they abandoned vehicles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evacuation of an entire town and destroyed hundreds of structures. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Pointing to multiple fires that have devastated California since 2017, the U.S. government offered a basis Monday for a federal judge to hold Pacific Gas and Electric criminally liable.

PG&E has been on a five-year probation since January 2017 when a federal jury convicted the utility on six counts in connection to the San Bruno pipeline explosion, which killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes. 

Found guilty of one count of obstruction and five counts of violating pipeline-safety laws, PG&E is bound by the terms of its probation not to violate any federal, state, or local laws. It also has to establish a new compliance and ethics program and report to a court-appointed monitor. 

This past June, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, concluded that downed power lines maintained by PG&E caused 12 wildfires beginning in October 2017.

PG&E power equipment is also suspected of playing a role last month in the deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed more than 1,200 homes and buildings and killed 86 people. 

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Hallie Mitchell Hoffman and Jeff Schenk cited these findings Monday in a 5-page brief filed with U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has been overseeing the San Bruno case against PG&E.

“If PG&E’s reckless operation or maintenance of its power lines started a wildfire, PG&E may have violated a condition of its probation,” the brief states.

PG&E is represented by Eric Matthew Hairston with Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe. James Noonan, a spokesman for the utility, responded to Monday’s filing by touting the utility’s commitment to public and workforce safety.

“We are focused on assessing our infrastructure with the goal of further enhancing safety and helping protect all of the customers we serve from the ever-increasing threat of wildfires,” Noonan said in an email. “We are committed to working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive safety solutions that provide safe, reliable gas and electric service to our customers in the future.”

Just a few days earlier, California’s top lawyer told Alsup that PG&E could be guilty of murder or manslaughter if it violated state laws intended to prevent wildfires with reckless disregard. 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said in a Dec. 28 court filing that state law requires PG&E to clear trees, brush and other plants within a certain radius of power lines and equipment. The utility is also required to remove trees or limbs that may come into contact with power lines, according to the AG’s office. 

The state would have to prove willfulness or criminal negligence to find PG&E guilty of those two misdemeanors, but reckless disregard could make it liable for felonies, including murder.

While the court appointed a monitor to oversee how PG&E improves the safety gas-transmission lines, its power lines and electricity operations are not subject to the same standard. Federal prosecutors noted today, however, that the monitor must ensure that PG&E develops an effective ethics and compliance program, which could relate to the maintenance of power lines and nearby vegetation.

Justice Department lawyers say they have already asked the monitor to start reviewing how PG&E manages vegetation and maintains and inspects electrical equipment.

Alsup asked federal prosecutors, PG&E and the monitor to respond to his questions about the wildfires and PG&E’s compliance with its probation terms on Nov. 27. 

PG&E has not yet filed a response to the judge’s questions. The deadline to respond is Dec. 31.

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