Judge Imposes Stricter Fire-Prevention Terms on PG&E Probation

Embers fly from a tree as the Kincade Fire burns near Geyserville, Calif., on Oct. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric must hire its own tree inspectors, design a new inspection system for its aging power infrastructure and videotape every equipment inspection under the terms of new probation conditions handed down Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for felony convictions related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, faulted PG&E for shoddy maintenance of its power equipment, which led to a series of catastrophic wildfires that killed at least 108 people and burned more than 22,000 buildings over the last three years.

“A fundamental concern in this criminal probation remains the fact that Pacific Gas & Electric Company, though the single largest privately-owned utility in America, cannot safely deliver power to California,” Alsup wrote.

The judge also accused PG&E of “cheat[ing] on maintenance of its grid” to maximize shareholder dividends, executive bonuses and political contributions.

The new requirements come after attorneys for the company told Alsup in February that it would never be able to certify perfect compliance with state regulations.

Noting that a court-appointed monitor caught urgent problems that PG&E’s outsourced tree inspectors missed, Alsup ordered the company to hire its own team of in-house inspectors. The inspectors must identify trees that are too close to power lines and double check the work of contracted tree trimmers to make sure potential fire hazards are eliminated.

Alsup also found PG&E has repeatedly failed to adequately inspect aging equipment, including a C-hook that snapped off a transmission tower in Butte County and caused the most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire, in November 2018.

While the cause of the Kincade Fire that burned over 77,000 acres in Sonoma County last year remains under investigation, Alsup said the evidence strongly suggests it was started by a “problematic” PG&E jumper cable that was inspected three times in 2019 before it allegedly failed.

“Like a broken record, PG&E routinely excuses itself by insisting that all towers had been inspected and any noted faults were addressed, at least according to its paperwork,” Alsup wrote.

The judge ordered PG&E to keep records on the age of every piece of equipment on all its transmission lines and towers.

“Every part must have a recorded date of installation,” Alsup mandated. “If the age of a part is unknown, PG&E must conduct research and estimate the year of installation.”

The judge will also require PG&E to design a new inspection system in consultation with the court-appointed independent monitor by May 28. The new system must include video recordings for every inspection.

Additionally, Alsup ordered that all PG&E contractors who inspect equipment must carry insurance “to cover losses suffered by the public should their inspections be deficient and thereby start a wildfire.”

Alsup said he is encouraged by the fact that the California Public Utilities Commission is requiring PG&E to hire an independent monitor to take on the court-appointed monitor’s oversight role after PG&E’s probation term expires in January 2022.

Alsup recommended that the federal monitor and CPUC meet with PG&E to discuss ways to ensure the utility carries out his new probation directives.

“The Court will be flexible in approving any protocols that achieve the essence of the foregoing new conditions if all such parties so recommend,” Alsup wrote.

The judge also took time to offer some unsolicited advice to California Governor Gavin Newsom, state lawmakers and California regulators. He suggested that utilities like PG&E should be fined for violating the state’s vegetation management and equipment maintenance regulations.

“PG&E does not currently face punishments for these violations of California law,” Alsup wrote. “The state could impose harsher penalties for PG&E’s failure to maintain proper vegetation clearances, including failure to mitigate hazard trees and limbs within a reasonable period of time, and impose harsher penalties for PG&E’s failure to address infrastructure remediation tags within regulatory time frames.”

Additionally, Alsup recommended that executive bonuses be tied to safety and that the state continue to tolerate public safety power shutoffs as “the lesser evil” until PG&E comes into full compliance with state law and maintains a grid that is safe to operate in high winds.

In an emailed statement Wednesday night, PG&E said it was reviewing the judge’s order.

“We share the court’s focus on safety and recognize that we must take a leading role in working to prevent catastrophic wildfires,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said. “We remain focused on preparing for the wildfire season ahead, while continuing to deliver safe, clean and reliable energy to our customers.”

PG&E declared bankruptcy in January 2019 as it faced over $30 billion in potential liability for wildfires allegedly sparked by its equipment.

Some 80,000 wildfire victims are currently voting on whether to accept PG&E’s proposed bankruptcy plan, which includes a $13.5 billion wildfire victims’ trust half funded by PG&E stock. A hearing on confirmation of PG&E’s restructuring plan is scheduled for May 27 in San Francisco.

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