PG&E Tells Judge It’s Fixing Flaws in Wildfire Prevention Work

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Pacific Gas and Electric lawyers appeared before a federal judge Tuesday to explain how the company is working to fix serious flaws identified in its wildfire prevention work.

“The program that is underway is unprecedented in scope,” PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini said in court. “We’re trying to do a level of work that no utility in the country to our knowledge is doing or has ever done before.”

Orsini was responding to a federal monitor’s report, which found the company missed thousands of potentially hazardous trees near power lines and that its record-keeping system was dangerously inaccurate.

Appearing before U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees PG&E’s criminal probation for convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, Orsini explained how PG&E is improving the program.

The company has launched new trainings for tree inspectors, required competency tests for contractors and started using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to correct inaccurate maps of power lines in its records system, Orsini said.

In a July 26 report made public last month, a court-appointed monitor overseeing PG&E’s wildfire prevention work found the company missed over 3,000 potentially hazardous tree, averaging 61 missed trees per mile over 71 circuit miles inspected.

On Tuesday, Orsini said the overwhelming majority of those missed trees, about 85%, were healthy trees identified as hazardous only because they belonged to a group of 10 tree species classified as high-risk for fire danger.

“This is fundamentally different from what these types of workers have done before,” Orsini said. “It’s just not common practice for them to go out there and cut down these healthy trees.”

To address the problem, Orsini said the company launched new mandatory training sessions, required “four sets of eyes” to double-check every tree within 12 feet of power lines in high-risk areas, and resolved to terminate any tree inspector who fails to pass a competency test after three tries.

To correct inaccurate maps and records in PG&E’s iPad-based ArcCollector system, Orsini said the company has ordered workers to mark the correct locations of power lines and equipment in the app. Meanwhile, the company is deploying aircraft and drones with laser-emitting technology to create accurate maps of power lines.

Orsini said the company has 100,000 miles of power lines to go through.

“It won’t happen overnight, but we’re working to fix it,” he said.

Responding to the judge’s query, Orsini said the company is aware of at least one instance in which a contracted tree worker falsified information in the system, a move that appeared to be intentional. He said that contractor was fired.

Alsup asked PG&E to inform him any time a contractor is suspected of falsifying a report, adding he may refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution.

“I think they should know that this is serious work,” Alsup said.

Orsini also said the company is preparing to shut off power for thousands of customers when high wind gusts occur in the upcoming autumn months to prevent fires. He said the company has held close to 1,000 meetings with communities and first responders on its de-energization program with a heavy focus on helping people who depend on electricity to power their life-saving equipment.

“California should expect more of it this year because it’s an important component of how PG&E is trying to reduce wildfire risk,” Orsini said.

Pacific Gas & Electric CEO Bill Johnson. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

Alsup asked PG&E to report back to him on how many fires of 10 acres or more were started by PG&E equipment so far this year. The judge said he plans to schedule another court hearing in late December to get an update on PG&E’s fire prevention work.

Speaking with reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said the utility agrees with the monitor’s report and finds it helpful in identifying problems and improving the program.

PG&E has about 4,500 workers cutting and trimming trees every day as part of its enhanced vegetation management program. The company has trimmed or cut 900,000 trees this year and expects to double that number by the end of 2019, according to Johnson.

“This is a huge effort, and we’re learning as we go,” Johnson said.

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