PG&E Tells Judge It Fell Short on Fire Prevention Targets

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Pacific Gas and Electric missed key terms of its criminal probation, including a requirement that it meet every fire-risk reduction target in a state-mandated wildfire safety plan, the company revealed in a court filing Wednesday.

Responding to a federal judge’s demand for details on its probation compliance, PG&E said it could not confirm if it has obeyed every local, state and federal law, the first condition of its five-year probation term that started in January 2017.

“Due to the size of its service territory, the dynamic environment that PG&E power lines run through and other legal and practical limitations, PG&E is unable to certify that it is in perfect compliance with all applicable regulations at any specific point in time, including the time of this submission,” the company stated in a 13-page court filing.

A Pacific Gas & Electric worker walks in front of a truck in San Francisco on Aug. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

With 100,000 miles of overhead power lines stretching over a 70,000-square-mile territory that contains “millions of trees” that could touch or impact its power equipment, the company said it would be virtually impossible for it confirm compliance with state regulations requiring at least four feet of distance between trees and power lines.

Last year, PG&E launched an enhanced vegetation management program aimed at identifying maintenance problems and trees and vegetation located too close to power lines. In July, a federal monitor reported serious flaws with the program that led the company’s inspectors to miss 3,280 potential risk trees. PG&E later introduced reforms to the program to avoid those flaws in the future.

Despite the enhanced inspection program, PG&E said Wednesday that it “is unable to monitor every tree that could contact its lines at every moment.”

In 2019, PG&E received about 40 notices from regulatory agencies regarding trees too close to its power lines, including 32 notices from Cal Fire detailing 75 potential violations.

The company said it inspected 99% of its nearly 100,000 miles of overhead distribution and transmission lines in 2019 and completed work on more than 1 million trees.  Work is currently scheduled to be done on another 22,000 trees that were identified as potential hazards, according to PG&E.

PG&E also acknowledged it fell short in meeting all targets outlined in its state-mandated Wildfire Safety Plan, which was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission this past May. PG&E must meet those targets as a condition of its probation.

The company failed to meet seven of 53 commitments made in its wildfire safety plan.

PG&E did not achieve its target of confirming that 98% of distribution line inspections “met expectations” in 2019, missing the mark by 1.3%. The company also failed to complete all corrective actions prescribed for distribution lines by deadlines set in May and June 2019, according to its court filing.

As of Dec. 31, PG&E had about 500 outstanding corrective actions not completed for its transmission poles and towers. The company said it would use a risk-based approach to prioritize correcting those problems in 2020.

PG&E also failed to complete 19% of planned inspections as part of its Catastrophic Event Memorandum Account (CEMA) program, which involves aerial and ground patrols in high fire-threat areas to identify trees vulnerable to drought and other deteriorating conditions.

The company further acknowledged failing to patrol all facilities that were de-energized during public safety power shutoff events. The company blamed that lapse on its amended strategy for handling public safety power shutoffs, which was never adopted by the utilities commission.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the company’s probation in a criminal case related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, ordered PG&E to comply with the targets in its wildfire safety plan in April 2019 after the company was found to have violated its probation by failing to notify a probation officer about a wildfire settlement with Butte County.

PG&E said in a statement Wednesday that it shares Judge Alsup’s commitment to safety and acknowledges that it must take a “leading role” in keeping customers safe and preventing wildfires.

“While PG&E was successful in completing the vast majority of the targets in our Wildfire Safety Plan, we recognize that we fell short in a few areas and that we have more work to do,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said by email. “We will continue to work with the court, the federal monitor, our regulators and other stakeholders to strengthen our electric system for the climate-driven challenges we all face in California.”

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