PG&E Accused of Violating Probation With 2018 Wildfires

In this file photo, flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Trouble keeps mounting for utility Pacific Gas & Electric, as it was ordered Wednesday to appear in federal court to answer for its failure to disclose a $1.5 million settlement with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office to avoid criminal prosecution over its role in the wildfires that ravaged the area last October.

Cal Fire investigators found the embattled utility company had neglected to trim decaying branches away from its power lines, which likely ignited Honey Fire on Oct. 9, 2017 that burned 150 acres in Butte County.

On Wednesday, the scandal-ridden company Tetra Tech, currently sued by the Justice Department for falsifying soil tests in its clean-up of Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, was awarded a $250 million contract by the state to clean up debris caused by the Camp Fire.

Just last month, the Department of Justice filed a brief with U.S. District Judge William Alsup, pointing to PG&E’s potential criminal liability for at least 11 wildfires in 2017 that were caused by downed power lines, including the Honey Fire.

PG&E has been on a five-year probation since January 2017 when a federal jury convicted the utility on six counts in connection to the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010 which killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.

Found guilty of one count of obstruction and five counts of violating pipeline-safety laws, PG&E is bound by the terms of its probation not to violate any federal, state or local laws. It also has to establish a new compliance and ethics program and report to a court-appointed monitor.

In an order Wednesday, Alsup said he planned to modify the conditions of PG&E’s probation, requiring the company to begin re-inspecting its electrical grid and trimming or removing all trees near its power lines, among other fixes. He also ordered it to de-energize some power lines during high wind events and notify affected customers.

“In determining safety, PG&E may not take into account the need for reliability of service, the inconvenience to customers resulting from interruption in service, or its impact upon PG&E’s revenues and profits,” Alsup wrote. “Reliability is important but safety must come first. Profits are important but safety must come first. Only safe operation will be allowed.”

Alsup continued: “These conditions of probation are intended to reduce to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E in the 2019 Wildfire Season. This will likely mean having to interrupt service during high-wind events (and possibly at other times) but that inconvenience, irritating as it will be, will pale by comparison to the death and destruction that otherwise might result from PG&E-inflicted wildfires. PG&E shall promptly advise law enforcement, hospitals and other emergency personnel and the public at large in its service area to consider arranging for back-up emergency generators as a hedge against interruption of power.”

Jennifer Hutchings, a probation officer for the Northern District of California said in a filing Wednesday that it violated its probation by negotiating with the Butte County D.A. over three of last October’s wildfires, and thereby “forgoing any criminal prosecution or punishment.”

“At no time did Pacific Gas and Electric Company report this investigation by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office to the probation office,” Hutchings said. “At no time did Pacific Gas and Electric Company report to the probation office that CalFire had deemed them responsible for the Honey Fire; that there was the possibility of criminal prosecution; or that they entered into a settlement agreement with Butte County to avoid such criminal prosecution.”

PG&E has been summoned to appear before Alsup on Jan. 30. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

In an email, PG&E spokesman James Noonan said the utility agreed that safety is a priority and will try to comply with Alsup’s order. 

“PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve. We are aware of Judge Alsup’s orders and are currently reviewing,” he said. “We are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future.”

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