Judge Calls PG&E ‘Reckless’ for Failing to Remove Dangerous Tree

The federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation had stern words for the utility during a hearing on whether it should be subject to new requirements after its equipment sparked a deadly wildfire last September.

In this Sept. 27, 2020, file photo, a house burns on Platina Road at the Zogg Fire near Ono, Calif. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — “Criminally reckless” is the term a federal judge used on Wednesday to describe Pacific Gas and Electric’s failure to take down a tree suspected of causing a deadly wildfire that killed four people last fall.

“How many people has PG&E killed in this state on account of its failure to take care of trees near distribution lines,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup asked during a virtual court hearing.

The answer would be 113 if PG&E took responsibility for all fires caused by its equipment over the last five years. That includes two people who died in the 2015 Butte Fire, 22 who died in the 2017 Northern California wildfires, 85 who died in the 2018 Camp Fire, and four who died in the Zogg Fire last year.

Alsup, who oversees PG&E’s criminal probation for convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, which killed eight people, questioned why the utility’s lawyers are resisting his proposals for new probation terms. The proposed conditions aim to prevent a repeat of the Zogg Fire that sparked in Shasta County this past September and killed four people, including a mother and her 8-year-old daughter.

“My heart sinks when I think of the number of people — good ordinary citizens like that mother and daughter who died in the Zogg Fire — because PG&E did not take down trees,” Alsup said. “Then they hire excellent lawyers like you to come in and try to justify it.”

PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini urged the judge to accept his client’s proposed alterations to the recommended probation terms. Instead of making PG&E consider all known tree hazards in its public safety power shutoff decisions, the utility suggested that it only consider the most critical threats categorized as “Priority 1” or Priority 2.” 

Those hazards must be resolved within 24 hours or 30 days, respectively. Imposing that requirement will lead to more frequent and widespread blackouts, PG&E said in a court filing last month.

“We fundamentally agree that we ought to be taking known safety risks into account in [public safety power shutoff] decisions,” Orsini said.

Orsini acknowledged the gray pine tree suspected of causing the Zogg Fire this past September was not categorized as “Priority 1” or “Priority 2.” The tree was flagged for removal in 2018 but never taken down

PG&E blamed the oversight on a scheduling glitch and a female resident who threatened tree crews with a gun when they tried to do work in the area in September and October of 2018. Three subsequent tree inspection patrols failed to identify the tree that was previously flagged for removal, Orsini said.

Alsup refused to accept PG&E’s excuses, noting that it could have gone to the sheriff or sought a restraining order against the woman brandishing a firearm so tree crews could remove a dangerous hazard as required by state law.

“I think it was reckless, maybe criminally reckless, to leave that gray pine looming over the line,” Alsup said. “Your conscience ought to hurt that four people died on account of that.”

The judge also dismissed PG&E’s proposed limitations on his recommended probation terms as insufficient. Because the tree suspected of causing the Zogg Fire was not labeled “Priority 1” or “Priority 2,” that area would not have been de-energized before the deadly blaze started last year.

“I believe what PG&E is proposing here is a sleeves-out-of-its-vest proposal that will have very little effect and will not protect the public,” Alsup said.

Last week, Alsup gave lawyers for two PG&E customers permission to file an amici, or “friend of the court” brief, which recommended the judge impose four additional probation terms on the utility.

The lawyers, Michael Aguirre and Catherine Sandoval, proposed two conditions that would require PG&E to hire a chief data operations officer and improve its record-keeping systems. 

That proposal came after PG&E acknowledged it could not quickly access important information held in databases controlled by its contractors. Orsini dismissed those proposals, arguing that PG&E chief risk officer Sumeet Singh is already “laser focused” on that issue and efforts are underway to consolidate data from older and separate databases.

Aguirre and Sandoval’s clients also asked that PG&E be required to update its technology so that contractors cannot leave fields blank when they fill out tree reports or schedule inspections for dates in the past, as was done in 2018 two years before the Zogg Fire ignited in that area. 

Orsini said PG&E has already changed its system to prevent leaving fields blank and to ensure “those types of things can’t continue to happen.”

The amici lawyers further proposed that PG&E use QR codes that can be scanned by a cellphone to flag trees for removal and track their status, instead of using the older method of spray painting trees. Orsini said spray paint is necessary so that when crews get to a location with several trees they will know “it’s this tree and not that one.”

Alsup said he would give the California Public Utilities Commission a chance to respond to the amici proposals before he seriously considers them.

Before ending the hearing, Alsup had more stern words for PG&E, saying the utility has been a “terror” to Californians. He preemptively rejected PG&E’s longstanding position that climate change has contributed to recent wildfires, noting that PG&E equipment sparks fires. Climate change just makes them worse, he said.

PG&E’s probation term ends in January 2022.

“I have one year left to do my supervision of PG&E then probation ends by law,” Alsup said. “I am dedicated to doing the very best job I can to rehabilitate PG&E, to protect the public from further crimes of PG&E and to protect the public generally.”

Judge Alsup issued an order Thursday finding that PG&E’s offer to consider only “Priority 1” and “Priority 2” hazards is “too restrictive” and unlikely to adequately protect Californians from wildfires. The judge asked PG&E to respond to a new proposal: that the company consider the total number of trees, including healthy trees, tall enough to fall on powerlines in strong winds.

“Even healthy trees, if tall enough, pose a risk of falling on PG&E’s distribution lines in a windstorm, as counsel for PG&E stated several times at the hearing on Feb. 3,” Alsup wrote.

Alsup ordered PG&E to respond to the proposal by Feb. 19 and scheduled a hearing on March 9 to discuss the issue.

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