New Fire-Prevention Probation Terms Imposed on PG&E

Firefighters and deputies carry the body of a Camp Fire victim at the Holly Hills Mobile Estates in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric must start tracking the age of its power components in high fire-threat areas and start replacing transmission tower components at risk of failing within 90 days under new probation terms imposed Friday.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup approved new probation conditions, which were jointly proposed by PG&E, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the federal monitor overseeing its probation in June.

The new terms are far less stringent than those first imposed by Alsup in April. The judge agreed to stay the stricter probation requirements after PG&E filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing the new conditions would undermine wildfire safety.

On April 29, Alsup imposed four probation terms that would have required PG&E to hire its own tree inspectors, design a new inspection system for its aging power infrastructure and videotape every equipment inspection.

During a telephonic hearing in May, PG&E laywer Kevin Orsini argued that the court lacked evidence to show such conditions would improve fire safety.

After working with federal prosecutors and the court-appointed monitor to arrive at new probation terms that it considered more feasible, PG&E submitted its proposal for three new conditions on June 24. A few weeks later, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, told the court it did not oppose those conditions.

On Friday, Judge Alsup adopted PG&E’s watered-down version of the probation terms in full.

The first new condition requires PG&E to hire at least 30 new in-house managers to oversee the work of contracted tree inspectors by the end of January 2021. The first 10 of those managers must be hired by the end of September. The inspection managers will review contracted tree inspectors’ work in the field, correct mistakes and report all problems to PG&E and the federal monitor.

The second condition requires PG&E to maintain records on the age of transmission tower components, but only those for which failure could ignite a fire in high risk areas. The utility must search for records on the age of those pieces of equipment or estimate the age based on the best available information.

A third condition requires PG&E to create an in-house or contracted team of transmission tower inspection supervisors to oversee in-field inspections, make two prior years of inspection reports available to post-inspection review teams starting in 2021 and change its policy to require replacing within 90 days transmission line components that have close to a 50% chance or more of failing.

Alsup added that PG&E should not ignore replacing components that fall short of that standard.

“Under no circumstances shall PG&E contend that the Court has blessed ‘approaching 50%’ as an acceptable benchmark for replacement of cold-end hardware,” Alsup wrote. “Safety requires replacement on a case-by-case basis, not just when certain cold-end hardware approaches 50% material loss.”

In an emailed statement, PG&E spokesman James Noonan said the company shares the court’s goal of improving wildfire safety for the 16 million people who depend on it for electricity in Northern California.

“We remain focused on our most important responsibility – the safety of the customers and communities we serve, and doing right by the victims of past wildfires,” Noonan said.

Judge Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for felony convictions related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. PG&E was sentenced for six felony convictions in January 2017. Its five-year probation term expires in January 2022.

PG&E emerged from 17 months of bankruptcy brought on by a potential $30 billion or more in wildfire liabilities on July 1 after paying $25.5 billion in settlements for wildfires sparked by the company’s equipment in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

The California Public Utilities Commission hit PG&E with a record $2 billion fine in May for its role in sparking a series of destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

In June, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of recklessly starting the Camp Fire, the most deadly and destructive fire in California history. A Butte County grand jury investigation found the company repeatedly ignored warning signs about its antiquated power equipment, failed to learn from past tragedies and conducted inadequate inspections as it focused on profits over safety.

Last month, California fire officials blamed PG&E equipment for causing the 2019 Kincade Fire, which scorched 77,000 acres in Sonoma County over 12 days, destroying 374 structures and forcing nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.

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