PG&E Overhauls Wildfire Prevention Work After Scathing Report

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Less than one year into its enhanced wildfire-prevention work, Pacific Gas and Electric told a federal judge Tuesday it is overhauling the program to address serious flaws identified by a court-appointed monitor.

PG&E General Office Building in San Francisco. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

The embattled utility said it will retrain thousands of contractors hired to inspect trees around its power lines, take down hazardous limbs and trees and verify that work has been completed.

Under the new training regime, which started July 29, every tree inspector must take a competency test. Failing the test three times means removal from the project.

The company has also added extra steps for inspecting and removing fire risks from around more than 25,000 miles of power lines over the next eight years. The program initially consisted of three phases: Inspectors would identify hazardous trees and limbs near power lines; tree crews would remove those hazards; and a post-work verification team would review the work.

Now, PG&E is requiring a second set of inspectors go back over the same set of lines and identify every tree within striking distance of its high-voltage lines. Another tree crew will come back and remove any hazards missed in the first round before a post-work verification check.

PG&E detailed its program overhaul in a 16-page court filing Tuesday, responding to a scathing report that found PG&E contractors potentially missed more than 3,000 hazardous trees in their first few months of the enhanced vegetation management program, which started in December 2018.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation in a case related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, ordered PG&E to respond to the report.

PG&E said it “anticipated that the program would require frequent evaluation and adjustment” and that the monitor’s findings matched its own internal review of the program.

The company said it has created new written training materials and assigned 40 additional PG&E employees to help oversee the program, including one vice president and two directors.  Additionally, the utility said it will hold biweekly meetings with every contracting company to give updates and receive feedback.

Addressing concerns about record-keeping flaws, PG&E said it was piloting a program to simplify data input for its Arc Collector database and “locking” certain fields so tree inspectors cannot alter who entered information on what date.

To deal with complaints about trees having inconsistent flag or paint colors, the company said it would add a “comments” section for inspectors to note those colors in the system.

Additionally, the company said it would use light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR) to fix inaccurate maps of power lines and allow inspectors to draw correct lines on maps in the database if locations are wrong.

PG&E said it is also in the process of launching a new quality assurance program that will include random inspections of lines after post-verification work is complete.

In its July report, the monitor identified 127 problems with trees reviewed by PG&E’s post-work verification team, “the last line of defense” that is supposed to catch any hazards missed by pre-inspectors and tree workers.

PG&E said in a statement that it shares the court’s commitment to safety and has already made improvements to address the monitor’s findings.

“Our work in this area is far from finished,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said by email. “We will continue to evaluate additional ways to improve, while working with regulators, lawmakers, the court and our federal monitor to develop comprehensive long-term safety solutions in the future.”

A court hearing to discuss the monitor’s report is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 17.

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