SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A federal judge in San Francisco has issued a revised proposed order that would impose strict wildfire prevention conditions on PG&E Co. as part of its criminal probation in a natural gas pipeline safety case.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup will hold a hearing April 2 on whether to go ahead with the proposed order issued late Tuesday. The new proposal is less drastic than an earlier proposed order issued by Alsup in January, but the judge had harsh words for PG&E.
Alsup charged that the utility’s “unsafe conduct has led to recurring deadly wildfires caused by its electrical system” and said it has had a “dismal” record in managing vegetation near its power lines.
The new proposal would require PG&E to comply with all requirements in state law and with its updated wildfire prevention plan. It would mandate that PG&E must hire enough staff to do the tree work and would allow random inspections by a court-appointed monitor.
Alsup’s previous proposal would have required PG&E to inspect its entire Northern and Central California service area and remove all trees that could cause fires by falling on electrical lines.
The judge said he will delay “for a few weeks” deciding on whether to impose another previously proposed condition, which would require PG&E to turn off power during high winds on any lines not inspected and certified as being safe from falling trees and branches.
PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in a statement, “PG&E shares the court’s commitment to safety and agrees that we must all continue to work together with urgency to address the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California.”
Noonan said the San Francisco-based utility will file a written response to the proposed order by a March 22 deadline set by Alsup.
In a response to Alsup’s previous proposal in January, PG&E said it was working aggressively on wildfire prevention, but said inspecting and certifying its entire area would be unrealistic and turning off power except as a last resort could endanger public safety.
In the new proposal, Alsup also threatened to prohibit PG&E from issuing any shareholder dividends until it fulfills all the requirements for managing vegetation.
The utility has already suspended dividends since late 2017, however, because of its potential liability for North Bay wildfires in 2017 and the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018.
Alsup wrote that PG&E’s holding company, PG&E Corp., paid shareholders $1.9 billion in 2016 and 2017 and said some of the money should have been spent on wildfire prevention instead.
“During this same period, PG&E knowingly failed to trim or remove thousands of trees it had already identified as posing a hazard,” Alsup wrote.
PG&E is currently in a federal Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, which enables the company to freeze its debts while developing a financial reorganization plan.
Alsup noted that Cal Fire has determined that PG&E equipment or lines started 17 major fires in Sonoma, Napa and other Northern California areas in October 2017.
The state fire agency has not yet determined the cause of the disastrous Camp Fire that killed 88 people in November 2018, but PG&E said last month it believes a failure in its equipment on a high-voltage transmission tower in the Sierra Nevada foothills will be found to have been the cause.
Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s probation in a criminal case in which the utility was convicted of five counts of violating federal pipeline safety rules and one count of obstructing justice in a probe of a fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.
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