PG&E Exits Federal Probation Despite What Judge Calls Five-Year 'Crime Spree'

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PG&E transmission line towers on the Caribou-Palermo line are seen adjacent to the Feather River in Butte County, near the spot where the Camp Fire began. In February, PG&E said it's "probable" that its equipment caused the blaze, the deadliest and most destructive in modern California history. Cal Fire investigators later confirmed that to be the case.
Transmission towers on PG&E's Caribou-Palermo line (lower right) are seen adjacent to the Feather River in Butte County, near the spot where the Camp Fire began in November 2018. Broken equipment on a Caribou-Palermo tower touched off the blaze, which authorities say killed 84 people. (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

PG&E has completed five years of criminal probation despite worries that the nation’s largest utility remains too dangerous to trust after years of devastation from wildfires sparked by its equipment and linked to neglectful management.

The probation, which expired at midnight Tuesday, was intended to rehabilitate PG&E and improve its safety practices after its 2016 conviction arising from the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline disaster.

Instead, PG&E has been found responsible year after year for igniting catastrophic wildfires.

Those include several in the North Bay in 2017; the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that nearly wiped out the town of Paradise and nearby communities; the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County; the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which killed four people; and last year's Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 1 million acres of northern Sierra Nevada forest.

All told, fires the company started while on probation have killed 111 people.

“In these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote in a report last week reviewing his oversight of the utility.

“We have tried hard to rehabilitate PG&E,” Alsup wrote. “As the supervising district judge, however, I must acknowledge failure.”

Alsup declined an interview request from The Associated Press to elaborate on his concerns about PG&E.

PG&E faces more criminal charges for both the Kincade and Zogg fires. Butte County prosecutors are now determining whether to charge the company with arson in the Dixie Fire, a decision due by July.

PG&E's conduct prompted its court-appointed monitor to raise alarms about the utility's wildfire prevention efforts in a final report filed in November.

Although the monitor's report applauded significant improvements to the company's natural gas operations, it raised serious concerns about the company's poor record of wildfire safety.

“We doubt anyone would seriously contend PG&E’s performance has been adequate, or that substantial improvement is not still imperative,” the report said.

The monitor cautioned that with 25,000 miles of power lines in California's most fire-prone territory, the consequences of a single misstep — a missed hazard tree, the failure to replace corroded hardware on power lines — can be “death and destruction.”

Judge Alsup, who repeatedly excoriated PG&E during its probation, asked both federal prosecutors and PG&E in 2019 to weigh in on whether he could extend the company's probation.

He raised the idea again during a hearing earlier this month held to consider allegations PG&E had violated probation by starting the Kincade and Zogg fires.

When PG&E lawyers formally denied the charges, Alsup told Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Stern he would consider extending probation, but only if prosecutors asked him to.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco declined to file such a motion. Instead, it told Alsup that PG&E's term of probation was already the maximum allowed under federal law. Even though there is no binding legal precedent, the prosecutors said, they would not seek an extension given the "unique history and circumstances" of the PG&E case.

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Catherine Sandoval, an energy professor at Santa Clara University and a former member of the California Public Utilities Commission, faulted federal prosecutors for backing away from trying to extend the probation.

She was also critical of the U.S. Attorney's Office decision not to pursue an evidentiary hearing to prove the allegations that PG&E had violated its probation by igniting the Kincade and Zogg fires.

"I think that's disappointing because for basic respect for the law here, you have a felon who has already admitted to 85 felonies during their probation," Sandoval told KQED. "And then they're charged with more probation violations and the U.S. attorney doesn't even want to hold a hearing to determine whether or not there was a probation violation."

"That's just not consistent with the respect for the law I believe that we need, especially for, unfortunately, a recidivist felon, PG&E," she said.

Stern, the federal prosecutor handling PG&E's probation, didn't respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

While acknowledging its problems, PG&E claimed in its own final report to the judge in November that its electricity grid is “fundamentally safer” now than in January 2017. It also defended the roughly 40,000 employees and contractors who maintain its operations.

“Vilifying them and threatening to criminalize the exercise of professional judgment or the making of honest mistakes serves neither safety nor fairness, and instead severely detracts from PG&E’s efforts to bring the skills of the best and brightest to bear on stopping wildfires,” PG&E lawyers wrote. “We are all in this together.”

The utility says it now spends $1.4 billion annually to trim or remove trees, up from $400 million annually in 2017. But Alsup estimated PG&E still has a seven-year backlog of high-risk trees that need trimming or removal.

“We know there is more to do,” PG&E told Alsup in its final report. “These are not just words on a page or a poster, they are a commitment to make it right and make Californians safe.”

Sandoval, who was among the CPUC commissioners overseeing PG&E from 2011 to 2017, accused PG&E officials of being mired in a pattern of “cognitive immaturity” and “lazy thinking” that should require its executives and board to submit to counseling.

“PG&E, the corporation, needs the training an individual criminal defendant would have received in prison to break the cycle of criminal thinking that endangers public safety,” Sandoval wrote in a filing earlier this month.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press and Dan Brekke of KQED News.

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