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PG&E didn’t prioritize meaningfully reducing fire risk, monitor says

PG&E substation
An art installation on the side of a Pacific Gas & Electric substation in Petaluma, Calif.
(John G Mabanglo / EPA/Shutterstock)

PG&E Corp. prioritized meeting numerical inspection targets over meaningful reduction of wildfire risk, according to a monitor overseeing the utility’s program of trimming trees and vegetation that pose a threat of devastating blazes in California.

Among the court-appointed compliance monitor’s findings: The company failed to conduct detailed climbing inspections of 967 transmission structures in high-fire-risk areas before the start of the peak wildfire season. Wind damage to one such tower was the cause in 2018 of the state’s deadliest wildfire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in a court filing Tuesday that the monitor has uncovered numerous shortcomings due to human error and a failure to escalate problems.

The failures are “the same problems that offender PG&E has long had,” Alsup wrote. He set a Nov. 3 deadline for the utility to respond.

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The judge oversees the company’s criminal probation stemming from a conviction for safety violations after a fatal gas-pipeline explosion in 2010. He has previously harshly criticized PG&E for falling behind on fire safety maintenance, including vegetation management.

“PG&E shares the court’s focus on safety and recognizes that we must take a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California,” the company said in a statement. “We’re aware of the monitor’s letter and related order from the court. We are currently reviewing and plan to respond by the deadline given by the court.”

Alsup’s filing comes as PG&E is aiming to restore its tattered reputation with state regulators, lawmakers and customers after having been blamed for starting some of California’s worst fires. In June, the utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 2018 Camp fire.

The monitor, Mark Filip, reported to Alsup that PG&E has missed more trees this year than late last year requiring trimming or removal because they pose a risk of contact with PG&E’s power lines or towers. Filip said one reason for the increase may be that last year, as PG&E pushed to meet inspection targets, it diverged from its own risk model by counting stretches of power line with fewer trees and some portions surrounded by no trees at all.

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The findings “strongly suggest” that PG&E prioritized hitting inspections targets “over the most meaningful wildfire risk reduction,” Filip said.

The failure to do the climbing inspections of the towers appears to have been caused by “human error, lack of oversight, miscommunications and failure to properly escalate matters,” Filip wrote. PG&E has said it plans to complete these inspections by Thanksgiving, he said.

Last week, Alsup ordered PG&E to explain whether it had a role in igniting the September Zogg fire in Northern California, which killed four people and burned more than 56,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada.


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