PG&E Tells Fire Safety Critics Utility is Going Beyond Call of Duty

By | September 18, 2019

PG&E Corp. sought to assure a judge it’s making progress on fire prevention, saying it’s exceeding regulatory requirements to clear vegetation from power lines.

Kevin Orsini, a lawyer for the utility, on Tuesday acknowledged criticism from a court-appointed compliance monitor, who concluded PG&E is falling short in managing hazardous vegetation that poses a risk of wildfires and failed to train its contractors properly.

At the same time, Orsini told a federal judge overseeing the utility’s criminal probation that PG&E is cutting trees and vegetation most at risk of starting a fire to create a 12-foot radial clearance from power distribution lines. The clearance meets the most aggressive safety requirements, Orsini said.

PG&E this month acknowledged that a quick rollout of a large-scale program for managing vegetation has caused confusion among its contractors, resulting in failures to prune some trees that pose wildfire threats.

Read More: PG&E Took 8 Months to Prune a Tree at Risk of Catching Fire

“The contractors who were going out there were missing healthy trees that we were saying nonetheless need to come down,” Orsini told U.S. District Judge William Alsup, explaining why some dangerous trees haven’t been removed. “It’s not common practice to go out there and cut down healthy trees.” The lawyer also told the judge PG&E “absolutely expects” to cut power to customers more frequently when windy conditions warrant it.

“This is new,” Orsini said. “We’re all plowing new ground here.”

The monitor, Mark Filip, is reviewing PG&E’s wildfire-mitigation efforts, after the company’s 2016 conviction stemming from a gas-pipeline blast that killed eight people. His job is to ensure PG&E doesn’t violate the terms of its probation and to scrutinize its business practices more broadly.

Alsup, who has been harsh critic of PG&E practices that have been blamed for California’s worst wildfires in recent years, is overseeing its probation. Tuesday’s hearing should come as something of a relief to PG&E as the judge mostly listened to lawyers for the utility, the monitor and the federal government. Bill Johnson, the company’s chief executive officer, attended but wasn’t called on by the judge to speak.

Previously, Alsup has contemplated punishments that will spur the company to strengthen its fire-prevention efforts.

“The purpose of the hearing is to go over the monitor’s criticism” and “see what we can do to get PG&E to do a better job of complying,” Alsup said.

Read More: PG&E Leaders Ordered to Meet Officials in Town Razed by Fire

Orsini told Alsup that the company has uncovered one false contractor report of vegetation management that was “egregious enough” to bar the contractor from working for PG&E. Alsup told Orsini to add that fact in its future contractor training, including an explanation of how the judge may refer other false reports to federal investigators.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January in the face of an estimated $30 billion or more of claims for wildfires linked to its equipment. Some of those fires were sparked by tree branches hitting power lines, according to state investigators.

The utility is under criminal investigation in Butte County, California, over the deadliest fire in the state’s history. The Camp Fire, which raged in the northern part of the state for two weeks in November, destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 86 people.

Late last year, PG&E embarked on an unprecedented effort to clear tree limbs and brush away from its power system as part of a sweeping plan to reduce the risk of its equipment starting another catastrophic blaze.

The utility has said it’s having trouble finding enough qualified workers to do the job. The company had about 4,500 employees and contractors for the tree work at the end of August, according to the court filing.

To address the monitor’s concerns, PG&E said it was implementing new measures including added training and testing for contractors, more oversight and providing easier-to-understand instructions to crews.

The case is U.S. v. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., 14-cr-00175, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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