Judge questions PG&E about complying with wildfire safety plan

PHOTO BY ANTON DMITRIEV/UNSPLASH

By Julia Cheever, BAY CITY NEWS SERVICE
A federal judge sharply criticized PG&E at a hearing in San Francisco on Wednesday, saying that the utility had fallen “far behind” in comply- ing with its wildfire mitigation plan.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup spoke during a hearing on whether he should order PG&E to hire and train its own crew of tree trimmers in addition to using contractors to remove trees that could spark fires by falling on electrical lines.
The judge is also considering a second possible order that would restrict bonuses for supervisors until PG&E complies with the plan.
Alsup took both issues under submission and will rule at a later date after receiving more infor- mation from PG&E.
Any orders issued by the judge would be new conditions of its probation from criminal pipe- line safety convictions stemming from the fatal explosion of a natural gas pipeline in San Bruno in 2010.
PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini argued it is more efficient for PG&E to work with professional contractors. He said the number of contract tree trimmers working in PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service territory grew from about 1,400 at the be- ginning of 2019 to 5,437 at the end of the year.
“The reality is it’s a human system. It can nev- er be 100 percent perfect. That doesn’t mean we
don’t strive for perfection,” Orsini told the judge. Alsup eventually said, “Give me a number” of new contract tree trimmers to be hired “and a date by which you can achieve that, and I might be will-
ing to accept that.”
Alsup also heard testimony from a consultant
who noticed a worn C-hook on the Cresta-Rio Oso transmission line in Butte County, near the line where a broken C-hook led to electrical arcing that sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 peo- ple and burned 153,000 acres.
The consultant, Scott Hylton, was hired by law- yers for wildfire victims in connection with PG&E’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case, in which the utility is seeking financial reorganization in the face of lia- bility for billions of dollars in wildfire claims.
Hylton said he noticed some wear on the hook on the Cresta-Rio Oso line in December 2018 and then more wear in a second inspection in Decem- ber 2019. He then contacted PG&E and the judge.
Under questioning from Alsup, Orsini said PG&E inspectors had not recorded any problem with the hook. He said he did not know whether the reason was that they did not consider the wear to be significant, or that they missed it. He said repair has now been scheduled.
Thousands of other C-hooks have been re- placed, “some with more significant wear,” Orsini told the judge.
Alsup instructed PG&E lawyers to provide more information about the utility’s inspections of the hook.