PG&E Ripped for Prioritizing Cleanup in Areas With Low Fire Risk

A PG&E electric transmission tower with a view of a jumper cable, one of which failed near the time and place where the Kincade Fire started in October 2019. (PG&E photo)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric has prioritized wildfire-prevention work based on what makes it look good rather than what actually reduces risks in the highest fire-threat areas, a court-appointed monitor warned in a recent memo.

“Overall, we believe the inspections and related analyses have identified material shortcomings in PG&E’s progress, as compared to its stated goals regarding wildfire risk reduction,” independent monitor Mark Filip wrote in an Oct. 16 letter made public Tuesday.

The letter was sent to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees PG&E’s criminal probation in a case related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.

PG&E said it prioritizes wildfire-prevention work based on a risk model that assigns a risk score to each high fire-threat zone in its service area.

In 2019, PG&E identified 100 circuits, or stretches of power lines, as having a much higher risk score than 596 other areas. But approximately 59% of its enhanced vegetation management (EVM) work was performed in lower-risk circuits that year, according to the monitor.

“As the company pushed to meet its 2,455-mile EVM target for 2019, it did not prioritize wildfire risk reduction according to its risk model,” Filip wrote in his 3-page letter to Judge Alsup.

The monitor also reported that 92% of the miles PG&E teams worked on to meet its mileage target through November 2019 required no tree trimming work, making it much easier and quicker to get those miles counted toward its goal.

That figure improved last year with the percentage of miles PG&E covered with no tree trimming dropping to 77%. The monitor reported PG&E is doing more work in higher tree-density areas this year. A preliminary analysis found 57% of the miles covered this year required no tree trimming.

“We believe that the company needs to do a much better job of prioritizing wildfire risk reduction within mileage targets through its [enhanced vegetation management] work, while operating pursuant to an effective risk model,” Filip wrote.

PG&E told the monitor it will work to address this shortcoming and that it is preparing a revised risk model and scope for its 2021 wildfire-prevention work.

“Moving forward, the monitor team will be focusing its vegetation management inspections in areas with greater vegetation density, and we will continue to evaluate the company’s use of its risk models,” Filip wrote.

The monitor also warned Alsup about PG&E backsliding in its work to identify tree hazards near power lines. From May to July 2019, the monitor found PG&E inspectors missed 11.4 hazards per mile. After working with the monitor to revamp its training for inspectors, that figure dropped to 1.1 missed trees per mile from September to December 2019.

This year the monitor team found 4.82 missed hazards per mile, suggesting that improvement has “at best, plateaued, and perhaps actual regression has occurred.”

On Oct. 4, a monitor’s team inspector found a tree PG&E was supposed to remove in mid-August with leaves singed from contact with a power line. It failed to remove the tree twice “seemingly because of a series of process breakdowns.” After the monitor alerted PG&E, the tree was removed within 24 hours.

PG&E also failed to meet its internal target for completing enhanced climbing inspections for 967 transmission structures in high fire-threat areas by Aug. 31. That goal would have allowed PG&E to address potential problems before the peak fire season started in late September. PG&E performed zero enhanced inspections of those towers by the deadline.

At the same time, it conducted 1,000 climbing inspections on transmission towers outside the high-threat areas by Aug. 31. That it prioritized enhanced tower inspections in lower-risk areas while neglecting ones in higher-risk zones demonstrates the company’s “shortcomings in executing work in a manner that prioritizes wildfire risk reduction,” Filip wrote.

The monitor blamed that failure on “human error, lack of oversight, miscommunications, and failure to appropriately escalate matters” and said PG&E plans to complete the enhanced tower inspections by Thanksgiving.

Alsup ordered PG&E to respond to the monitor’s letter by Nov. 3.

Earlier this month, the judge ordered PG&E to “explain its role” in potentially starting the 56,000-acre Zogg Fire that ignited on Sept. 27 and killed four people in Shasta County. Alsup demanded the explanation after PG&E revealed in a securities filing that CalFire had taken possession of its equipment as part of an investigation into the cause of the fire. PG&E’s response to that order is due on Oct. 26.

“PG&E shares the court’s focus on safety and recognizes that we must take a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California. We’re aware of the monitor’s letter and related order from the court,” PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing and plan to respond by the deadline given by the court. We continue to evaluate, evolve and refine our approaches to further reduce wildfire risk and meet our wildfire mitigation plan objectives.”

In August, Alsup imposed new probation terms that require PG&E to track the age of all transmission tower components, hire in-house managers to oversee contracted tree inspectors and replace transmission tower components at risk of failing within 90 days.

In July, PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after agreeing to $25.5 billion in settlements over claims that its equipment sparked a series of destructive wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. In June, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and received the maximum sentence, a $3.5 million fine, for its role in sparking the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that burned more than 153,000 acres, wrecked 18,800 buildings and destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County.

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