Judge Orders PG&E to Answer Newspaper Report on How It Handled Aging Power Lines

A June 2018 view of the Pacific Gas and Electric headquarters in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The San Francisco federal judge overseeing PG&E's felony probation for a 2016 pipeline safety conviction is ordering the company to respond to a published report that it was aware of the wildfire danger posed by some of its high-voltage power lines but failed to act.

In a story published Wednesday morning, the Wall Street Journal said the company "knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades"

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The report was based on internal PG&E documents and communications with federal agencies the paper said it obtained under public records laws.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who earlier this year found that PG&E had violated its probation in the pipeline safety case, responded to the article with a harshly worded directive ordering the company to answer the Journal's story paragraph by paragraph.

Alsup said he expected a direct, transparent response.

"The offender (PG&E) may not evade response by saying, for example, that it cannot know what documents the Wall Street Journal reviewed," Alsup wrote in the two-page order. "The offender should know the extent to which the story is accurate or not since the report covers what PG&E knows internally. In the past, the offender has responded to some of the court’s questions by filing thousands of records and leaving it to the judge to find the needles in the haystacks. This time, the offender must provide a fresh, forthright statement owning up to the true extent of the Wall Street Journal report."

Alsup also told the company he wanted answers about spending decisions it has made in the past several years.

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The judge ordered the company to disclose all political donations made since Jan. 1, 2017, and to "explain why those campaign contributions were more important than replacing or repairing the aging transmission lines described by the Wall Street Journal article and removing or trimming the backlog of hazard trees, and increasing vegetation management."

Alsup, who has repeatedly questioned dividends PG&E paid shareholders even as the company was contending with the maintenance backlog, revisited that topic in Wednesday's order.

The judge noted the utility had paid nearly $5 billion in dividends in the years leading up to the recent wildfire catastrophes and its decision earlier this year to seek federal bankruptcy protection.

"Please also explain why so much was paid out in dividends at a time when PG&E was aware of the problems named in the Wall Street Journal report and knew of its hazard tree backlog," Alsup wrote.

He gave PG&E until July 31 to respond.

In a statement, the company said while "we don't agree with or support the Journal’s conclusion, we have acknowledged that the devastation of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires made clear that we must do more to combat the threat of wildfires and extreme weather while hardening our systems."

As to Alsup's directive, the company said, "We are aware of the court’s order and are currently reviewing it."

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