PG&E 'Falling Short' in Removing Hazardous Trees Near Power Lines

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PG&E crews worked last November to repair power lines that were destroyed by the Camp Fire in the town of Paradise. A PG&E transmission line outside the town -- not the lines pictured -- touched off the blaze, which killed 86 people.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated 12:15 a.m. Thursday

A court-appointed monitor who was ordered earlier this year to track PG&E's wildfire safety program says the company's effort to remove hazardous vegetation near power lines suffers from a series of potentially dangerous deficiencies, including missing large numbers of trees that need to be cut down or trimmed and an error-plagued record-keeping system.

In a report submitted to U.S. District Judge William Alsup late last month and made public Wednesday, monitor Mark Filip said his team had recorded hundreds of instances in which PG&E contractors failed to treat trees that posed potential wildfire hazards.

Filip said his team's inspections had also uncovered "substantial record-keeping issues," including at least one instance in which a contractor had falsely reported it had addressed a dangerous tree when it had not.

"Based on its inspections thus far, the monitor team has two core observations," Filip's report said. "First, PG&E's contractors are missing numerous trees that should have been identified and worked under applicable regulations and the EVM (enhanced vegetation management) program. Thus, not only is PG&E falling short of its EVM goals for the year, but the quality of the completed work is questionable. Second, PG&E’s system for recording, tracking and assigning EVM work are not reliable or consistent and are likely contributing to the identified quality issues."

Filip, a former federal judge and deputy U.S. attorney general, was appointed in 2017 by former U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to monitor PG&E's compliance with the terms of its probation for felony violations of pipeline safety laws.

Alsup, who was assigned to oversee the case after Henderson retired, ordered Filip's team to inspect various aspects of PG&E's state-mandated wildfire safety program — and especially whether the company's vegetation management practices complied with state laws and regulations that set minimum clearances between power lines and trees.

That clearance, as well as the hazard posed by 10 particularly fire-prone tree species and dead or dying trees that could fall onto power lines, is of paramount importance after a siege of destructive wildfires over the last several years touched off by PG&E electrical equipment.

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In his report, Filip said that by late July, his team had inspected more than 1,550 PG&E vegetation management projects covering about 71 miles of the utility's power lines. That's a tiny fraction of the utility's more than 100,000 miles of distribution and transmission network. About 25,000 miles of those lines runs through areas the state has identified as high fire-threat districts.

In more than 400 cases, the monitor's team identified what Filip termed "potential exceptions" — nearly 3,300 trees that needed work or should have been considered for removal but were missed by PG&E's enhanced vegetation management program.

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The report said most of the trees identified as potential exceptions were from a group of 10 species that PG&E has identified as presenting a particularly high risk of touching off a fire if they come into contact with power lines.

The company's vegetation management program called earlier this year for removing such trees, which include gray pine, Monterey pine, several species of oaks and eucalyptus, if they're tall enough to fall across power lines.

The monitor's inspections — performed by two-person teams consisting of a certified arborist and an attorney employed by Filip's Chicago law firm — also turned up more than 500 cases where tree contractors had failed to properly clear limbs from above power lines and 60 in which trees showing signs of decay or rot had been left in place.

In three separate cases, Filip said his team found issues "that could have resulted in fatalities, injuries or serious damage if not timely remediated."

On all three occasions, the monitor's team found trees that were either in contact with or within a foot of live electrical wires. Two of those three cases involved trees that contractors had reported working on — and one of those instances involved a false report of action taken.

On July 12, the monitor team informed PG&E of a tree that was within inches of the primary conductor (power line) and had been contacting the conductor during wind gusts," Filip's report says, noting that the ongoing contact had burned leaves on the tree.

"PG&E informed the monitor team that this particular tree was identified for routing compliance work in November 2018 and a tree work company reported to PG&E that it completed the work in February 2019, even though it was not actually completed (that is, the tree work company provided a false certification)," the report continued.

Filip credited PG&E for acting promptly to deal with urgent tree-trimming issues his team identified.

In a statement, the company said it continues "to work transparently and cooperatively with the federal monitor and his team.

"We understand and recognize the serious concerns raised by the monitor and we are taking immediate action to address these issues, which are consistent with our own internal reviews," the statement said. "PG&E’s service area includes more than 120 million trees with the potential to grow or fall into our overhead power lines. While we have made progress in many areas to further enhance wildfire safety including vegetation management work, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. We are pursuing a range of solutions to help make the energy system safer for the customers we serve."