Judge Orders PG&E Board to Visit Wildfire-Ravaged Towns

The remains of residences leveled by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif., are pictured in this Nov. 15, 2018, aerial photo. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge ordered field trips for Pacific Gas and Electric’s senior executives and directors Tuesday, directing them to visit California communities ravaged by wildfires to see the destruction caused by the utility giant’s failure to maintain trees and plants near power lines.

“The board of directors ought to see firsthand the devastation,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in court Tuesday, ordering the field trip as part of a sentence for PG&E’s recent probation violation.

In January, Alsup found PG&E violated its probation in a criminal case related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion by failing to notify a probation officer of a prosecution and settlement with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office over the 150-acre Honey Fire in October 2017.

On Tuesday, Alsup ordered PG&E’s leadership to tour the town of Paradise, where thousands of residents were displaced by the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and burned 18,000 structures in November 2018. He also directed executives to visit Santa Rosa, where thousands of homes were destroyed by wildfires in 2017.

The judge set a mid-July deadline for the trip and added he will likely join PG&E leaders on their tour.

“Maybe we’ll all have a bus ride come July 15 or so or sometime before the middle of July,” Alsup said.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday, PG&E’s new CEO Bill Johnson, who took over May 1, described the mandated field trip as a “wise” sentencing decision by the judge.

“I want to see the people, talk to the people affected,” Johnson said. “I empathize greatly with this tragedy.”

The judge also required that PG&E’s board of directors receive regular updates from a committee tracking the utility’s progress on meeting deadlines for trimming trees and burying or replacing uninsulated power lines, as outlined in a state-mandated wildfire prevention plan.

Smoke rises from fires in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Oct. 11, 2017. (Derek Anderson via AP)

Johnson, who previously headed the Tennessee Valley Authority since 2013, said even though he could have retired, he chose to come work at PG&E because he wants to make the company better and avoid mistakes of the past.

“We need to focus on better outcomes: better outcomes for customers and better outcomes for the state,” Johnson said.

However, the CEO also stressed the state government needs to work with utility companies to help them attract investors.

PG&E recently asked the state’s utility regulator to approve a rate hike that would increase the average household’s monthly bill for electricity and natural gas by $22.67 to encourage energy infrastructure investments.

“If people don’t invest, we can’t do the things we need to do: fire safety, renewable energy,” Johnson said.

Alsup did not extend PG&E’s probation or order the independent monitor overseeing its probation compliance to make its interim reports public. Federal prosecutors and PG&E urged the judge not to impose those conditions last month.

In April, Alsup imposed five new probation terms on the utility giant, including barring it from paying dividends to shareholders until it clears all wildfire hazards from around its power lines as required by state law.

Before ending the hearing Tuesday, Alsup voiced concern that the conditions he has imposed might not be enough to prevent another wildfire from sparking as a result of negligently maintained trees near PG&E power lines.

“I will lose sleep over it,” Alsup said. “Did I do enough to help PG&E stop these fires?”

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