A federal judge overseeing PG&E’s probation in the case that grew out of the San Bruno gas explosion lashed out at the utility Wednesday for spouting platitudes and paying dividends instead of addressing the looming threat of wildfires.
U.S. Judge William Alsup grew impatient at times as PG&E’s attorney, Kevin Orsini, argued the company simply did not have the ability to hire enough tree trimmers to clear lines or quickly shut down power without consequences – moves the judge had proposed as conditions of probation.
“To me, just as an ordinary mortal, PG&E should know the safety limits of its own system,” the judge chided Orsini. He became more pointed in pressing Orsini about his claim that people might be trapped in garages if the company shut off power, as the judge is advocating when winds in fire zones exceed 20 mph.
“Which is worse? Another Butte County fire, or an inconvenienced” customer, the judge asked, adding, “It’s a terrible choice, a Hobson’s choice, but that’s the tough choice that California has to make.”
Orsini told the judge it could take up to eight years for the utility to clear limbs that currently extend over its power lines or otherwise might imperil them, then agreed that eight years is too long and the company is pushing to expedite the efforts.
At another point, the judge rebuked the lawyer, saying: “I believe you are using an extreme case to justify doing as little as possible.”
The hearing came after Alsup found the company violated its probation by not notifying probation officials about a $1.5 million out of court settlement related to the 2017 Honey fire in Butte County, a deal struck just days before the disastrous Camp fire started in that same county.
The company’s interim CEO, John Simon, was in court during the hearing, in which the judge warned that any plan must do more than ease or mitigate the wildfire threat.
“It has to work” and prevent the company from sparking another fire, he said, adding that he expected PG&E to commit to “very strong” safety measures, “not platitudes.”
Simon stood and told the judge: “I’ve listened carefully, I take your points.”
In the end, Judge Alsup suggested he could simply order the company to comply with state law or go further in pushing a plan to force it to expedite tree trimming and order power shut downs.
After the hearing, attorneys for wildfire victims said they were encouraged the judge is taking such an active role in the face of the threat of a third disastrous fire season starting in June.
“This has to be stopped, the judge created a crucible for that, and we intend to do everything we can to make that happen,” said Frank Pitre, who represents victims of the Camp fire and the North Bay firestorm. “He sent a loud message that he wants a solution, he wants people to collaborate on getting it right – and he wants to do it immediately.”
Another wildfire victims’ attorney, Steve Campora, was also encouraged by what he says amounted to the first real judicial intervention over safety since the San Bruno gas line explosion.
“It’s been ten years,” he said since the blast that destroyed 37 homes and left eight dead. “People have been burned to death in their homes. People have lost their homes….and it’s time for the actions of PG&E to match its words.”
Judge Alsup promised a quick decision on what new conditions he might place on the company’s probation, but did not give a date.