PG&E Lost Longtime Tree-Trimming Contractor as Scrutiny on Utility Mounted Over Wildfires

A tree trimmer, for Asplundh Tree Expert works on removing frozen branches after cutting them down from nearby power lines on Jan. 6, 2005, in Wichita, Kansas. (Larry W. Smith/Getty Images)

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s contract with one of its largest tree-trimming contractors ended as state regulators and a federal judge ratcheted up the pressure to bolster the utility's vegetation management program.

Asplundh Tree Expert, headquartered in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, dissolved its decades-long relationship with PG&E late last year as its contract with the utility was expiring, a PG&E spokesman confirmed to KQED News on Monday.

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Until last fall, prior to the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County, Asplundh employed the largest unionized labor force providing vegetation management services to PG&E, according to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1245 — which represents thousands of workers involved in tree trimming at PG&E and every publicly owned utility in Northern California, with the exception of the city of Palo Alto.

As of late September, about a quarter of the 1,897 IBEW 1245 members conducting vegetation management for PG&E — 493 workers — were employees of Asplundh. Another out-of-state contractor, Kent, Ohio-based Davey Tree, provided a workforce that was nearly as large, with 486 unionized workers doing similar work for PG&E. But the next-largest contractor employed substantially fewer workers, 288 in total.

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"It's a serious loss that they've had to compensate [for] by recruiting all over the country," said Tom Dalzell, business manager at IBEW 1245.

"As an agent of the utility, [Asplundh] was subject to the law of inverse condemnation," Dalzell said, referring to the state law that holds utilities responsible for wildfire damage caused by their equipment, regardless of whether they were negligent. "That's not found in most states. With the very high fire risk in PG&E's service territory, combined with drought and forestry practices, it's risky doing business. I wouldn't be surprised if that entered into their thinking."

Asplundh did not reply to several calls from KQED requesting comment.

Cal Fire had previously determined that PG&E equipment was responsible for 18 of more than 170 wildfires that swept Northern California in October 2017. The fire agency said it had found evidence that the utility might have violated state law in 11 of those incidents and referred cases to local prosecutors. Although Cal Fire has yet to make a determination into the cause of November's Camp Fire, PG&E said in March it's probable that it was responsible.

PG&E said Monday many of Asplundh's tree trimmers and subcontractors have been retained by other vegetation management companies to perform similar work, but the utility couldn't offer a specific number.

"The number of vegetation management contractors fluctuates based on work volume," PG&E said in an email to KQED. "On any given day, more than 1,000 contract tree crews — about three workers per crew — are working throughout PG&E's service area to prune limbs or remove trees that have potential to come into contact with overhead power lines."

Since October, Dalzell said, there's been a hiring surge aimed at supplementing normal fire prevention efforts with both tree trimmers and linemen, who maintain the power lines.

In April, PG&E said in a court filing that it had fallen behind on inspections, repairs, and tree-trimming work ordered by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the utility's federal felony probation case stemming from the deadly 2010 San Bruno explosion. The company entered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January.

"PG&E has hired and will continue to hire the qualified resources necessary to complete this work safely and with a high standard of quality," the company said in the April 25 filing.

But the company went on to acknowledge that "despite [its] best efforts, several external execution risks over which PG&E has no control threaten PG&E's ability to strictly comply with certain of its original targets."

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