Judge OKs Plan for PG&E to Pay $3 Million for San Bruno Wildfire Safety Project

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An emergency responder on the scene of the PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno's Crestmoor neighborhood on Sept. 9, 2010. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A federal judge has approved an agreement between PG&E and San Bruno that could reduce the risk of wildfire in the neighborhood devastated in a 2010 pipeline explosion while allowing the company to fulfill part of the criminal sentence imposed after the blast.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in a court hearing Tuesday he will allow San Bruno to go ahead with the deal, under which PG&E will pay $3 million for a wildfire mitigation project in the city's Crestmoor Canyon.

In approving the project, Alsup imposed one major condition: To make sure that PG&E's $3 million is spent on the wildfire project, his court or some other agency will be put in charge of disbursing funds for the work.

The project includes plans for creating a 100-foot firebreak between the canyon's dense, eucalyptus-dominated vegetation and surrounding residences. It also calls for repairing a road into the canyon to improve firefighter access and installing a water system to aid in extinguishing future fires.

The 77-acre canyon is adjacent to the neighborhood where a PG&E gas transmission line ruptured and detonated on Sept. 9, 2010, killing eight people, injuring dozens and destroying 38 homes. The disaster led to the company's 2016 conviction on criminal charges of violating federal pipeline safety laws and obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

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Part of the sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson was 10,000 hours of community service, 2,000 hours of which was to be performed by the company's senior executives. Henderson, who has since retired, specified that the service "shall be geared toward giving back to communities affected by PG&E's negligence, with special emphasis on the city of San Bruno."

Last month, San Bruno City Attorney Marc Zafferano wrote Judge Alsup, who now oversees PG&E's probation, that San Bruno officials did not believe the community service provision had worked the way the original sentence envisioned. Only 2,057 of the 5,225 service hours performed through May of this year had been completed in San Bruno, and virtually all of those San Bruno hours involved work for the city's school district, he said.

"PG&E did not ... seek the city's input regarding whether there were available community service opportunities in the city or establish a protocol by which the city would be officially notified to collaborate on such opportunities prior to PG&E serving other communities," Zafferano wrote.

Zafferano urged Alsup to approve an unusual request: that PG&E be allowed to fund the wildfire mitigation project for Crestmoor Canyon. As part of the agreement between the city and the utility, the $3 million PG&E payment would satisfy the company's current obligation for community service hours, which now stands at about 2,600 hours.

In an Oct. 8 hearing, Alsup expressed skepticism about the letter's lack of specifics and said he feared the $3 million payment would be diverted for work other than the physical cleanup of the canyon.

"My biggest concern is the money will be squandered on consultants and lawyers, and the true victims will go uncompensated,” Alsup said.

After hearing presentations from Zafferano and city fire officials on Tuesday, Alsup said "it's a worthy project no doubt." But he added it would be "unthinkable" that victims of the San Bruno disaster might be shortchanged, and he insisted that the PG&E money be spent on the "hard costs" of creating the 100-foot fire buffer and improving infrastructure in the canyon.

"My concern, being an old grizzled guy with 20 years as a lawyer and 20 years in this job, is the consultant syndrome," he said.

To ensure that the money is spent on the physical work, Alsup said his court, the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco or the Federal Probation Office would take PG&E's $3 million on deposit and disburse it as the project is completed.

Alsup directed lawyers for the company, the city of San Bruno and the Justice Department to hammer out details of how the money will be handled for his approval.