Utility Defends Delays in Eliminating Wildfire Risks

Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In the wake of last year’s Camp Fire causing $16.5 billion in damage, California utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric told a federal judge Friday it would take eight years to clear all hazardous trees, brush and overhanging limbs near its power lines that could spark a deadly wildfire in windy conditions.

In two court filings, the nation’s largest utility company said a lack of qualified workers and legal red tape are the two biggest factors driving its extended timetable for extinguishing wildfire risks.

“The most significant challenge to the program schedule is the limited availability of a qualified work force, in particular, limited qualified tree workers, which in turn limits the maximum pace of work,” PG&E stated in a 13-page brief.

To help speed up the process, PG&E said it would explore partnering with tree work vendors and an electrical workers union to launch an apprenticeship program that could expand the pool of qualified laborers.

Other issues slowing down the program, according to PG&E, are onerous legal requirements related to state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, and property owners who refuse to give its workers access to private land.

More than 40,000 delays in fire mitigation work occurred in 2016 due to customers refusing to permit PG&E workers on their properties. Another 1,200 or more delays resulted from the discovery of protected bird nests in trees slated for removal, according to the company.

“Where such conditions exist, PG&E may be required to obtain permits, research land rights or discontinue electric service until the issue is resolved,” the company said.

The company’s explanations for its fire mitigation work delays were filed in response to questions posed by U.S. District Judge William Alsup. Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s probation in a criminal case related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Last month, Alsup proposed requiring PG&E to re-inspect its entire electric grid and remove all trees near its power lines, a plan PG&E said would cost up to $150 billion and require taking down up to 100 million trees. After a Jan. 30 hearing, Alsup said he would wait for responses to PG&E’s state-mandated wildfire plan before he imposed new probation terms on the embattled utility. The state-mandated plan was submitted Feb. 7.

Also on Friday, PG&E submitted a 62-page response to accusations that the utility’s approach to wildfire prevention is inadequate as well as recommendations for future improvements put forward by two wildfire victims’ lawyers.

Earlier this month, attorneys Frank Pitre and Steven Campora stated in a 21-page brief that PG&E needs to adopt a power-shutoff program during high wind events, like one used by San Diego Gas and Electric. The lawyers also said PG&E relied on unqualified workers to inspect hazardous trees and lacked an independent committee to oversee its compliance with safety regulations.

PG&E responded Friday that it has already implemented most of the recommendations outlined in Pitre and Campora’s court filing, but the company insisted that an independent audit committee is unnecessary.

“PG&E does not believe that the creation of an additional committee is the most effective way to further mitigate wildfire risk,” the utility stated in its brief.

The company stressed it already uses quality control and quality assurance reviews to double-check work done by tree inspectors and vegetation management teams. The company further argued it has existing independent oversight from state regulators and a court-appointed monitor, which oversees PG&E’s compliance with all local, state and federal laws as a condition of its probation.

PG&E said it also plans to finish implementing all 60 safety improvement recommendations made by the consultant NorthStar in a May 2017 report, which found that “PG&E employees at all levels,” including executive managers and field employees were “committed to safety,” according to the company.

On suggestions that it adopt a mandatory training program for tree inspectors, PG&E said current certification requirements for contractors hired to inspect trees are sufficient.

Currently, all contractors must verify that their workers are trained on PG&E procedures each year. PG&E says it provides an extra two days of training per year to those contractors, and this year it will start requiring all tree inspectors become certified arborists or utility specialists within 12 months.

Additionally, the company vowed to start hiring more tree inspectors as PG&E employees instead of relying solely on contracted labor for that work.

PG&E said in a statement Friday that it has already taken many steps to reduce wildfire risk, adding that it welcomes feedback from its customers and the communities it serves on the wildfire prevention plan it submitted to state regulators earlier this month.

“PG&E understands it must play a leading role in implementing change that will help mitigate the risk of wildfires and remains committed to working with stakeholders across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for our state and customers,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in an emailed statement.

Attorneys Pitre and Campora, who put forward the critiques and recommendations for PG&E’s wildfire prevention work on behalf of wildfire victims, did not immediately return emails seeking comment Friday afternoon.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to approve a final version of PG&E’s wildfire prevention plan by the end of May.

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