- The federal judge in charge of Pacific Gas & Electric's criminal probation issued an order Wednesday instructing the utility to hire vegetation inspectors, revamp its transmission system inspections and ensure contracted inspectors are insured against potential wildfire losses.
PG&E was placed on probation following a natural gas pipeline explosion in Northern California a decade ago. U.S. District Judge William Alsup added a series of new conditions for the utility to follow, including requiring it to hire a cadre of tree-trimming inspectors rather than outsourcing the work.
Alsup said the utility's practice of outsourcing vegetation management work "remains sloppy and unreliable" and required PG&E to employ its own inspectors to identify tree branches that are too close to its power lines. PG&E is required to submit a detailed plan on implementing this condition by May 28.
Vegetation management is part of wider wildfire mitigation efforts by PG&E.
The utility has pushed back on Alsup's insistence that it provide more details of its plans to expand its vegetation efforts, last month telling the judge it could not commit to contracting a specific number of tree-workers by a future date. Alsup also quizzed PG&E's lawyers on the utility's vegetation management processes at a hearing in February.
The judge on Wednesday also imposed additional probation conditions regarding PG&E's transmission system. State investigators have identified one of the utility's transmission towers as the cause behind the 2018 Camp Fire.
"Like a broken record, PG&E routinely excuses itself by insisting that all towers had been inspected and any noted faults were addressed, at least according to its paperwork. But these transmission tower inspections failed to spot dangerous conditions," Alsup wrote.
The new conditions include recording the age of every item of equipment on PG&E's transmission system, creating a new system for inspections, and requiring contractors who perform these inspections to "carry insurance sufficient to cover losses suffered by the public should their inspections be deficient and thereby start a wildfire."
"We are aware of the court's order and are currently reviewing. We share the court's focus on safety and recognize that we must take a leading role in working to prevent catastrophic wildfires. We remain focused on preparing for the wildfire season ahead, while continuing to deliver safe, clean and reliable energy to our customers," PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in an emailed statement.