Judge Proposes Sweeping Measures to Stop 'PG&E-Inflicted' Wildfires

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A fallen PG&E pole in Paradise following the Camp Fire, pictured on Nov. 13, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Updated 7:20 p.m.

A federal judge overseeing PG&E's criminal probation for a 2016 pipeline safety conviction is considering ordering a vast expansion of the steps the company must take to prevent wildfires caused by its electrical infrastructure.

Under a proposed order issued in San Francisco by U.S. District Judge William Alsup on Wednesday, PG&E would be required to immediately inspect its entire electrical grid to remove hazards posed by trees, overgrown vegetation and deficient equipment.

Alsup said the inspections must go beyond the current mandates of state law. The order would require the utility and a court-appointed monitor to freshly certify that the company's equipment meets all aspects of the directive.

Alsup issued the proposed order at the same time federal probation officials filed a report that alleges PG&E has broken the terms of its probation in the pipeline case, which stemmed from the September 2010 San Bruno disaster.

That reported violation involves a case in which PG&E settled possible criminal charges for a 2017 fire involving one of its power lines in Butte County -- but failed to report the incident as required under the terms of its post-conviction supervision.

Alsup, who will hold a hearing on his proposal and the probation issue on Jan. 30, has issued a series of information requests since late November, after attention had focused on PG&E's possible role in starting the Camp Fire, also in Butte County.

That Nov. 8 blaze, which killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise, followed a disastrous series of North Bay fires in October 2017 -- many of which were found to have been sparked by PG&E equipment.

'Inconvenience' vs. 'Death and Destruction'

In his order Wednesday, Alsup wrote that his goal is "to reduce to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E during the 2019 wildfire season."

"This will likely mean having to interrupt service during high-wind events (and possibly at other times), but that inconvenience, irritating as it will be, will pale by comparison to the death and destruction that otherwise might result from PG&E-inflicted wildfires," the proposed order said.

Alsup wrote that PG&E's inspections and facility maintenance must include "all trees that could fall onto its power lines, poles or equipment in high-wind conditions, branches that might bend in high wind and hit power lines, poles or equipment, and branches that could break off in high wind and fall onto power lines, poles or equipment; shall identify and fix all conductors (power lines) that might swing together and arc due to slack and/or other circumstances under high-wind conditions; shall identify and fix damaged or weakened poles, transformers, fuses and other connectors; and shall identify and fix any other condition anywhere in its grid similar to any condition that contributed to any previous wildfires."

Alsup's proposal would also impose new operating rules on PG&E during times of high fire danger.

"At all times during the 2019 wildfire season (and thereafter), PG&E may supply electricity only through those parts of its electrical grid it has determined to be safe under the wind conditions then prevailing," Alsup wrote. "Conversely, PG&E must de-energize any part of its grid not yet rated as safe by PG&E for the wind conditions then prevailing until those conditions have subsided."

Alsup left open the possibility his order will be significantly modified. PG&E and the U.S. attorney's Office have been summoned to the Jan. 30 hearing, and the judge sent his proposed order to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E.

"If the CPUC (or the California Legislature) comes up with a better plan for insuring the safety of California before the 2019 wildfire season, the court will consider conforming its proposed conditions to any such plan," Alsup wrote. He invited the CPUC to comment on his proposal and appear at the hearing later this month.

Alsup issued a similar invitation to Cal Fire and asked the agency for "input ... concerning its investigation into the specifics of wildfires caused by PG&E."

'Refreshingly Simple and Straightforward'

Steven Weissman, a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and a former CPUC administrative law judge, called Alsup's approach "refreshingly simple and straightforward" and one that cuts through the complexity that the commission and the Legislature face when regulating PG&E.

"We're in a time when the Legislature has to hold multi-month debates, where the Public Utilities Commission needs to take evidence and float draft rules," Weissman said. "And here's Judge Alsup just saying, 'We can't trust that your system is safe because you may have been falsifying your safety records. So go out and check everything again, and when there's something that creates a potential fire hazard, fix it.' "

"It's nice to see someone who's in a relatively unencumbered position come straight out and say, 'Look, you need to make your system safe. If it's not safe, don't operate it,' " Weissman said.

He said the simplicity of Alsup's approach "might not be so simple to implement. But now it's PG&E's turn to come back and say, 'We understand what you want to accomplish. This is what we can do and cannot do in the time period.' "

Alsup's proposed order appeared immediately after San Francisco-based U.S. Probation Officer Jennifer Hutchings said in a court filing that her office has reason to believe PG&E has violated the terms of probation imposed after its pipeline safety conviction in 2016.

Under one of its conditions of probation, PG&E is required to report a range of events that could negatively affect the company, including "criminal prosecution, or administrative proceeding against the organization, or any investigation or formal inquiry by governmental authorities regarding the organization."

Hutchings said the company failed to alert her department and the court, as required, that Cal Fire had alleged the company violated state law in connection with a fire in Butte County in 2017.

As KQED reported last month, PG&E forestalled a prosecution in that case by working out a settlement with Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. Under that agreement, the company admitted no wrongdoing and paid $1.5 million to fund a fire safety team in the county.

In a statement, PG&E said late Wednesday: "PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve. We are aware of Judge Alsup’s orders and are currently reviewing. We are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future."

7:20 p.m., to include comments from Steven Weissman, lecturer at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.