Wildfire Victims Demand Big Changes at California Utility

Flames climb trees as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In the years leading up to California’s most deadly wildfires, Pacific Gas and Electric relied on unqualified workers to inspect hazardous trees and failed to remove more than 6,000 trees that posed a risk to its power lines, lawyers for wildfire victims told a federal judge Wednesday.

“From depositions in the Butte Fire case, it is apparent the employees of the tree inspection and removal companies are not sufficiently trained, experienced, or knowledgeable about their job responsibilities,” attorneys Frank Pitre and Steven Campora wrote in a 21-page brief submitted to 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.

Alsup had invited the two lawyers to submit their findings after they testified at a Jan. 30 hearing, during which Alsup found PG&E violated its probation by failing to inform a probation officer of a wildfire-related prosecution and settlement with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

Pitre and Campora filed their brief mere hours after PG&E submitted its 179-page wildfire safety plan to the California Public Utilities Commission as required under a new state law. The plan, estimated to cost up to $2.4 billion, includes a number of recommendations the two lawyers laid out in their declaration to the court.

PG&E has proposed ramping up tree inspections and removals, burying and insulating power lines, replacing wooden utility poles with steel ones, and installing 1,300 new weather stations and 600 high-definition cameras to monitor wind conditions in fire-prone areas by 2022.

Additionally, the company pledged to expand its emergency power shutoff program, which could result in power outages for more than 5 million electric customers during high-wind events.

One thing missing from PG&E’s wildfire plan is Pitre and Campora’s suggestion that it establish an independent committee consisting of three qualified professionals with power to obtain information from PG&E’s risk mitigation teams and make recommendations to the company’s board of directors.

According to the two lawyers, PG&E had no executive in charge of safety prior to 2012, when it appointed a corporate safety officer who previously held positions in finance and other business sectors of the company.

“He had no prior experience managing safety functions,” Pitre and Campora wrote.

In its 179-page plan, PG&E does call for an audit committee that would meet twice per year to publish a “rolling 12-month audit plan,” but members of that board would come from other departments within the company. PG&E also states it is currently looking to hire an independent contractor to review “various aspects of the risk reduction measures.”

According to Pitre and Campora’s declaration, PG&E’s contracted inspectors in the past failed to identify three out of 100 hazardous trees, based on a 2016 audit of the inspectors’ work.

One contracted inspector failed to identify a 44-foot, top-heavy gray pine being supported by other trees that were marked for removal. The inspector acknowledged he did not walk around the tree to look for decay and disease or use tools to measure the tree’s height or distance from power lines. When trees around the gray pine were removed in January 2015, the top-heavy tree remained and “leaned further and further toward the sun in the direction of the power lines.”

According to its wildfire safety plan, PG&E provides two days of training for contracted inspectors each year, on top of other required certifications they must obtain to do the work. However, no new trainings were proposed in the company’s 179-page wildfire safety plan.

Another recommendation put forward by Pitre and Campora is for PG&E to adopt the emergency power shutoff plan that San Diego Gas and Electric launched in 2008. Since 2014, the San Diego utility’s electric system has caused 109 wildfires, only one of which burned more than 10 acres. That stands in contrast to the 1,552 wildfires caused by PG&E over the same period, with 68 of those burning over 10 acres.

PG&E has proposed expanding its power shut-off program to include all electric lines that pass through areas of high fire danger.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects first responders and the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more,” PG&E Electric Operations senior vice president Michael Lewis said in a statement Wednesday. “We will only turn off power for public safety and only as a last resort to keep our customers and communities safe.”

To ease concerns about the impact of power shutoffs on communications systems for police and firefighters during emergencies, the company plans to establish “resilience zones” that would provide alternate power sources to keep critical systems running in times of crises. PG&E has already started construction on its first pilot resilience zone in the town of Angwin in Napa County.

The state’s utilities regulator will hold the first of a series of public meetings on PG&E’s wildfire safety plan on Feb. 13. The utilities regulator plans to approve a finalized wildfire plan by the end of May, according to commission spokesperson Terrie Prosper.

Judge Alsup, who is considering imposing a more stringent and costlier wildfire safety plan on PG&E, asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other interested parties to submit responses to PG&E’s state-mandated wildfire plan by Feb. 20.

Last month, the judge proposed making PG&E 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 wildfire plan before imposing a new sentence on the embattled utility.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday filed an 8-page response to Alsup’s questions about San Diego Gas and Electric’s emergency power shutoff system. In that brief, the regulator urged Alsup not to make PG&E power down its electric system when wind gusts exceed 20 or 25 miles per hour.

The commission argued that its “collaborative proceedings, and not judicial involvement” are the best way to create a de-energization system in “partnership and coordination with first responders and emergency management systems.”

The commission also filed with its brief a declaration by disability rights advocate Melissa Kasnitz, who argued that access to reliable energy “supports the ability of people with disabilities to live independently” and that their needs must be taken into account as the state weighs issues surrounding PG&E’s proposed emergency power shutoff program.

Under the $2.4 billion plan proposed Wednesday, PG&E would remove 375,000 trees this year compared to 160,000 last year. It would also increase utility pole inspections from 9,400 last year to 40,600 this year.

PG&E on Thursday did not immediately respond to requests for clarification on its trainings for contracted inspectors and the status of an internal audit committee tasked with double-checking the company’s wildfire mitigation work.

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