SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After finding Pacific Gas & Electric violated its probation, a federal judge on Wednesday questioned why the utility giant should not submit to a strict set of requirements aimed at preventing future wildfires.
“Why can't the risks be zero," U.S. District Judge William Alsup asked during a four-hour probation hearing. "Why is it that PG&E should be permitted to start a single wildfire?"
PG&E has been on a five-year probation since January 2017, after a federal jury convicted it on six counts relating to the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.
Earlier this month, Alsup issued an order to show cause why PG&E should not adhere to a stringent wildfire prevention program, which the company complained could cost it up to $150 billion.
On Wednesday, Alsup found PG&E violated its probation by failing to notify a probation officer of a prosecution and settlement with the Butte County District Attorney's Office over its role starting the 150-acre Honey Fire in October 2017.
The hearing occurred one day after PG&E filed for bankruptcy, citing billions of dollars in wildfire liability. The bankruptcy could lead to less compensation for wildfire victims and higher utility rates for customers.
Alsup declined to impose a new set of wildfire-prevention conditions on the company Wednesday, but he refused to rule out that option. The judge said he would wait until after PG&E submits its wildfire mitigation plan to the state's utility regulator before he renders a decision.
"If I was writing that plan and I was PG&E, I would commit to some very strong things, and not just platitudes," Alsup said.
Under a new state law passed last year, which limits PG&E's wildfire liability, all electricity providers must submit a wildfire risk management plan to the California Public Utilities Commission by Feb. 6.
The problem isn't just a lack of dollars, according to PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini. A lack of qualified workers means it will take at least eight years to remove every hazardous tree and branch from around PG&E's power lines, Orsini told the judge.
"I don't buy that you don't have enough people," Alsup replied.
A lawyer for the California Public Utilities Commission also warned Alsup that his proposal to make PG&E cut power in areas where wind gusts exceed 20 miles per hour to prevent fires could cause other public safety problems.
"Communication facilities go down. People can't charge their cellphones. Water systems go down," commission lawyer Christine Hammond told the judge. "If a non-utility-started wildfire starts, how do we get those messages out?"
Frank Pitre, a lawyer representing wildfire victims in state litigation, also addressed the court on Wednesday and suggested PG&E adopt the same system employed by San Diego Gas and Electric, which uses weather monitors to warn people days in advance that power will be cut in areas where high winds are expected.
Orsini told the judge that PG&E has met with San Diego's utility company, reviewed its system and invested in weather-monitoring cameras and wind-measuring equipment. But he added that system will need some tweaks because PG&E serves a much larger population of 16 million.
“If it’s worked well for San Diego, then that's an excellent model to adopt with whatever minor variations are needed for the larger territory," Alsup said of the plan.
Orsini also responded to criticisms that PG&E used unqualified contractors to inspect areas around its power lines. The PG&E lawyer said the company is hiring and training more inspectors as in-house employees and relying less on contractors.
To ensure that PG&E properly records and clears hazards from around its lines, Alsup suggested the court-appointed monitor overseeing probation compliance could conduct "spot checks." That would involve the monitor strapping on a pair of hiking boots and walking along random sections of PG&E power lines to check the utility's work.
Before ending the hearing Wednesday, Alsup asked lawyers representing fire victims to submit a brief outlining their recommendations for a wildfire prevention program. The judge also asked the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – commonly known as Cal Fire – to submit a brief explaining whether it interprets a state law as requiring PG&E to remove all limbs and branches hanging over its power lines.
The judge also asked all interested parties to submit responses to PG&E's wildfire mitigation plan within two weeks after its Feb. 6 deadline for filing the plan with the utilities commission.
Alsup said he would not delay his decision on new probation terms until May, when the commission is expected to finalize PG&E's wildfire plan, because time is of the essence. The 2019 wildfire season is expected to start in late June.
“We have an emergency in California, so we don't have the luxury of extended studies," Alsup said.
The judge acknowledged climate change and drought have contributed to increasingly severe wildfires in recent years, but he insisted PG&E could not escape blame for its role in sparking deadly blazes over the last two years.
"There's one very clear-cut pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires."
Cal Fire has determined PG&E caused 17 wildfires in 2017, 11 of which could result in criminal prosecution. The cause of the Camp Fire, which killed 88 people in November 2018, is still under investigation but PG&E equipment is suspected in causing that blaze.
Alsup noted that wildfires burned 3 percent of California's land in 2017 and 2018.
"Think about that," Alsup said. "Three percent of the whole state burned up. We cannot continue to sustain this kind of catastrophic injury to the state."
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