PG&E 'Cheated on Maintenance,' Judge Says — Then Orders New Probation Conditions

A back fire set by fire fighters burns a hillside near PG&E power lines during firefighting operations to battle the Kincade Fire near Healdsburg in October 2019. The blaze is believed to have begun near a PG&E transmission tower in The Geysers geothermal area.  (Philip Pacheco/AFP-Getty Images)

A federal judge in San Francisco who has spent the last 17 months trying to force PG&E to improve its safety practices in the wake of a string of deadly wildfires is now ordering the company to take a series of steps designed to head off future disasters.

In an order that included a withering critique of the company's safety performance, U.S. District Judge William Alsup told the utility it must now undertake dramatically expanded inspections of both its lower-voltage distribution lines and its network of high-voltage transmission lines.

PG&E on Probation


Alsup oversees PG&E's criminal probation for federal pipeline safety violations arising from the 2010 San Bruno disaster. His order added the new inspection requirements to the company's other conditions of probation.

The judge began his 13-page directive by remarking that "the single largest privately-owned utility in America ... cannot safely deliver power to California."

"This failure is upon us because for years, in order to enlarge dividends, bonuses, and political contributions, PG&E cheated on maintenance of its grid, to the point that the grid became unsafe to operate during our annual high winds, so unsafe that the grid itself failed and ignited many catastrophic wildfires," Alsup wrote.

Both PG&E distribution and transmission lines were involved in sparking catastrophic fires in 2017 and 2018.

Cal Fire cited distribution lines that came into contact with trees as the source of many of the October 2017 fires that swept much of Northern California, including large swaths of Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

The November 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the Butte County town of Paradise, started when a badly worn piece of hardware on a high-voltage transmission tower failed, allowing a charged line to swing free and arc during a period of high winds.

Alsup's order faults PG&E for failing to adequately oversee the work of contractors hired to clear vegetation from along the company's distribution lines. Under California law, utilities are required to allow a minimum of 4 feet of clearance between the lines and surrounding vegetation.

Sponsored

Last year, Alsup directed the court monitor assigned to work with PG&E during its probation to devise a system to spot check the utility's vegetation management work — an effort that was significantly expanded as part of PG&E's state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan.

Alsup noted that the court-appointed monitor found PG&E's 2019 "enhanced" vegetation management campaign to be riddled with errors. Contract inspectors had overlooked more than 3,000 trees that needed work or should have been considered for removal. In a handful of cases, the monitor's report said, it uncovered issues with trees "that could have resulted in fatalities, injuries or serious damage."

"Thanks to the monitor’s spot checks, PG&E went out and fixed all these urgent problems," Alsup wrote. "The point, however, is that PG&E’s outsourcing scheme remains sloppy and unreliable."

To fix that, the judge directed the company to hire new teams of inspectors, with one group assigned to identify all trees that need work and the second to conduct spot checks to ensure the needed work has actually been performed.

Alsup was also severely critical of PG&E in his assessment of the company's past transmission line maintenance and inspections. He recounted the company's failure to detect the damaged transmission tower hardware that led to the Camp Fire and several other instances in which inspectors didn't see or neglected to take note of equipment that was later found to be badly worn.

The judge expressed frustration that PG&E reported three separate inspections of a Sonoma County transmission tower where a cable broke during a windstorm last October and apparently started the Kincade Fire.

"Like a broken record, PG&E routinely excuses itself by insisting that all towers had been inspected and any noted faults were addressed, at least according to its paperwork," Alsup wrote. "But these transmission tower inspections failed to spot dangerous conditions. Was this because the inspections were poorly designed or was it because they were poorly executed? Had someone falsified inspection reports? It is hard to get a straight answer from PG&E. The offender is masterful at falling back on the inspection reports and saying, 'See, Judge, we had that very line inspected and all was well,' or, 'We fixed whatever they found wrong. We did our part.' The reports, however, are a mere courtroom prop."

To deal with those shortcomings and hold both individual inspectors and the company responsible for their findings, Alsup ordered three new conditions of probation.

PG&E has to catalog the age and condition of every piece of hardware on every transmission tower and line in its system. The company must also devise a new system to assess the condition of towers, lines and associated equipment and will be required to take a video of every inspection. Finally, contract inspectors will be required to carry enough insurance "to cover losses suffered by the public should their inspections be deficient and thereby start a wildfire."

Alsup gave PG&E until May 28 to present a plan to hire new vegetation management inspectors and a blueprint for the new transmission inspection protocols.

PG&E is aware of the court's order and is currently reviewing it, according to James Noonan, a spokesman for the utility.

"We share the court's focus on safety and recognize that we must take a leading role in working to prevent catastrophic wildfires. We remain focused on preparing for the wildfire season ahead, while continuing to deliver safe, clean and reliable energy to our customers," Noonan said in an emailed statement.

The judge's order included a strong endorsement for public safety power shutoffs — preemptive blackouts that left millions of people in PG&E's service area in the dark during prolonged periods of high winds and low humidity. Alsup remarked that the utility's post-shutoff inspections disclosed hundreds of locations where limbs and trees fell onto de-energized power lines and likely would have sparked wildfires.

"Those fallen limbs and trees remain proof positive that the PSPS program saved lives and homes," Alsup wrote. "Shutting off the power in those lines in advance of the windstorms was essential to public safety, and PG&E did so. For this PG&E deserves credit. But at the same time, those hundreds of fallen limbs and trees also remain proof positive of how unsafe PG&E had allowed its maintenance backlog to become."