Judge says PG&E violated probation, citing 'clear pattern' of fire ignitions
- A federal judge yesterday concluded Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) violated its probation related to the deadly San Bruno, California, gas pipeline explosion in 2010, and suggested he may adopt further restrictions on the utility before next fire season.
- U.S. District Judge William Alsup denounced the utility's record in court on Wednesday, saying, "There is one clear pattern here: PG&E is starting these fires." His conclusion gives credence to new terms and wildfire mitigation requirements he proposed earlier this month, which the utility says could cost $150 billion.
- The hearing at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California came a day after PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The utility is facing uncertainty on multiple fronts, including a proceeding where California regulators are considering the possibility of breaking up the utility.
Alsup declined to make a decision yesterday on what new probation terms he might require from PG&E, but his language communicated his frustration.
"Does a judge turn a blind eye and let PG&E continue what you're doing, let you keep killing people?" Alsup asked the court, according to The Mercury News. "Can't we have electricity that is delivered safely in this state?"
In a statement, the utility said it "shares the court's commitment to safety and agrees with the urgency. ... We look forward to working with the court and probation on how we might enhance our communications efforts."
The conditions Alsup is considering would direct the utility to inspect its entire system and shut down power in times of high wind.
PG&E told Alsup in a Jan. 23 filing that "the proposal is not feasible," and estimated it would need to remove more than 100 million trees to meet the judge's specifications — a task that would likely outstrip PG&E's available labor, requiring 650,000 full-time employees, the utility estimated.
"I don't believe you've exhausted the supply of people who know what they're doing," Alsup told the utility, adding state agencies could potentially help. But the union representing electrical workers on PG&E's system, IBEW 1245, backed up the utility and told the court "the goal of reducing 'to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E in the 2019 season' is noble but not practical."
While the judge mulls new possible probation terms, regulators are considering other options for the utility, including splitting apart its natural gas and electric delivery businesses. The California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into those avenues in December and will now begin to go through comments, which were due yesterday.
The Utility Reform Network (TURN) recently urged Alsup to place the company in federal receivership, to focus the company's attention on customers, according to a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Unlike federal bankruptcy court, where the focus is creditors, criminal court could exert enormous power over critical safety operations at PG&E," TURN Executive Director Mark Toney wrote.
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