PG&E ‘unsafe’ actions, ‘dismal’ prevention, caused wildfires: judge

PG&E ordered to fully comply with existing rules for trimming trees and shrubs near electricity equipment, halt dividend payments to shareholders

PULGA, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 12: Water drops are made on the fire line burning around PG&E transmission towers, Monday, November 12, 2018, east of Pulga,Calif. The deadly Camp Fire was first reported burning a few miles west up Highway 70. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
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PG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts have been “dismal” and its “unsafe conduct” is a factor that has caused repeat fires in Northern California, a federal judge stated in a harshly worded ruling that included orders for PG&E to halt paying dividends to shareholders until it fully complies with vegetation management rules.

“The essence of the problem is that the offender’s unsafe conduct led to a deadly pipeline explosion and to six felony convictions,” U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup wrote in his order, referring to a lethal blast of natural gas in San Bruno and a subsequent verdict that found PG&E guilt of crimes it committed before and after the disaster.

Referencing the role that PG&E’s equipment played in the fatal wildfires of 2017 and 2018, Judge Alsup added, “Now, the offender’s unsafe conduct has led to recurring deadly wildfires caused by its electrical system.”

A series of infernos scorched the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in October 2017, and 13 months later in November 2018, a wildfire roared through Butte County and essentially destroyed the town of Paradise.

Alsup, who is supervising the aftermath of PG&E’s conviction and how the company is complying with the requirement of its probation, issued a proposed order with an array of requirements that would impose new conditions for the company’s probation.

“PG&E must fully comply with all state and federal regulations and laws concerning management of trees and shrubs near its electricity equipment, as well as all rules for how far away the vegetation must be from the company’s power infrastructure, the judge ordered.

The embattled and disgraced utility also was obliged by Alsup to “fully comply” with the specific targets the company set out in its latest wildfire mitigation plan for 2019.

“Regular, unannounced inspections of PG&E’s vegetation management efforts and equipment inspection, enhancement, and repair efforts” will be conducted by a federal monitor who was tasked to supervise PG&E’s compliance with the requirements of its probation in the wake of its conviction, the judge ruled.

The company was also ordered to maintain “traceable, verifiable, accurate, and complete records” of its vegetation management. The records would have to be provided to the federal monitor on the first of each month.

“PG&E shall ensure that sufficient resources, financial and personnel, including contractors and employees, are allocated to achieve the foregoing” vegetation management and wildfire prevention efforts, Alsup stated in his order, issued during the evening of March 5.

The company would be required to hire and train its own employees to clear and trim trees and shrubs if it can’t find enough outside personnel.

“To ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for this purpose, PG&E may not issue any dividends until it is in compliance with all applicable vegetation management requirements as set forth,” Alsup ordered in the preliminary ruling.

It takes years, the judge noted, for trees to grow tall enough to pose a threat to the company’s power lines. As a result, regular inspections should be able to spot hazards before they might touch the equipment. Plus, PG&E has frequently arm-twisted regulators and politicians in the past when rules aren’t to the utility’s liking, the judge noted.

“If state or federal law is too strict, PG&E’s remedy would be to seek the relaxation of such laws through its well-oiled lobbying efforts,” Alsup stated.

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