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Judge blasts PG&E as the company’s probation expires

A federal judge said the largest utility in California failed to rehabilitate during its five-year probation period, failed to take responsibility for its continued role in starting catastrophic wildfires in Northern California and remains a danger to the state’s citizens living under the threat of large fire.

(CN) — As the probation expired for Pacific Gas & Electric, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has been overseeing the probation for years, was sharply critical of California’s largest utility, saying attempts to rehabilitate the agency have failed. 

“During these five years of criminal probation, we have tried hard to rehabilitate PG&E,” Alsup wrote. “As the supervising district judge, however, I must acknowledge failure.”

The judge said that during the probationary period — which began in 2017 after PG&E was found guilty of six felonies in relation to the San Bruno pipeline explosion of 2010, in which 8 people perished and about 60 suffered injuries — has proved unfruitful in sharp unsparing language.

“While on probation, PG&E has set at least 31 wildfires, burned nearly one and one-half million acres, burned 23,956 structures, and killed 113 Californians,” Alsup said in his order ending the utility’s five-year probation. 

He then detailed the alleged crimes the company has committed including 84 manslaughter charges related to the Camp Fire that razed the town of Paradise to the ground. The company is on the hook for other manslaughter charges related to the Zogg Fire that broke out due to the company’s faulty equipment in Shasta County in 2020. 

The worst fire in the most recent fire season, the Dixie Fire, may have also been started by PG&E equipment, as five counties are pursuing civil charges against PG&E in relation to the second-largest fire in state history. 

“In these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California,” Alsup stated. “Almost all of the survivors of these fires are still waiting for compensation.”

Alsup made clear his contempt for the excuses proffered by PG&E, including attempting to steer the blame toward increasing drought and the difficulties caused by a changing climate that has caused temperature increases in California. 

“We remain trapped in a tragic era of PG&E wildfires because for decades it neglected its duties concerning hazard-tree removal and vegetation clearance, even though such duties were required by California’s Public Resource Code,” Alsup wrote. 

The searing indictment will serve as balm to the utility’s many critics who claim the company has put shareholder profits above its public duty to maintain its equipment in a manner consistent with wildfire safety. 

“PG&E has been outsourcing to independent contractors its statutory responsibility for finding and removing hazard trees and for maintaining vegetation clearances,” the judge wrote. 

Alsup further castigated the company for blaming a dearth of qualified arborists, saying the company should have hired and trained its own workers to perform the vegetation clearance work necessary to operate a safe utility. 

He said its recent programs to shut off power to certain communities during high-wind events, a program called Public Safety Power Shutoff, the company failed to abide by its own safety protocol in an attempt to keep meters running and money rolling in. 

Alsup made clear that the only reason the court was relinquishing probation is that California statutes put five years as the maximum a publicly owned utility like PG&E can serve. 

“Sadly, during all five years of probation, PG&E has refused to accept responsibility for its actions until convenient to its cause or until it is forced to do so,” Alsup wrote, adding that he was dismayed by the constant excuse-making from the company. 

He recommended the utility be divided in two, with one partition focusing on communities where high-intensity fires pose an ever-present danger and another utility operating in less hazardous parts of Northern California.

“Less sprawling utilities would be easier to train and to instill practices and procedures that truly put safety first,” Alsup wrote. “And outsourcing should be outlawed or restricted.”

Alsup will continue to retain jurisdiction over document management and may be in a position to disclose reports, but the five-year probation that stems from the utility’s malfeasance more than 11 years ago is effectively over. 

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