Judge Orders PG&E to Explain How Tower Inspections Missed Wear

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A federal court judge on Wednesday lashed out at PG&E over having missed signs of extensive wear on tower hooks just 200 feet from where a worn C-hook snapped on an aging tower and sparked the deadly Camp fire in 2018.

U.S. Judge William Alsup gave the company two weeks to detail what inspectors found in a climbing inspection and drone examinations of the hooks on PG&E’s high voltage Cresta-Rio Oso line. The hooks keep power lines off the arms of the towers in the windy and remote location along the Feather River in Butte County.

Alsup made the order based on his own review of photos taken with a telephoto lens by a consultant working for wildfire victims. The judge said he himself saw substantial wear in photos taken in December and wondered how crews climbing the tower and surveying it with drones didn’t see what he saw.

“How come you missed this?’’ Alsup asked the company’s lawyers at the hearing.

 “This is a human process,” one of PG&E’s lawyers explained, stressing plans to replace the hooks as soon as next month.

PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini added that the wear the judge was concerned about may have been missed entirely or it could have been deemed not extensive enough to trigger action.  

Alsup said he suspected the company inspections missed the wear entirely.

“The inspections are not working if they are not catching these problems,” the judge said, as he pressed for answers as to how the inspections were carried out. The company promised to detail its inspection efforts for the hooks in question.

Alsup  thanked the wildfire victims’ attorney and the expert consultant who photographed the worn hooks on the Cresta-Rio Oso line, Thomas Scott Hylton.

 “We felt it necessary to bring this to the court’s attention,’’ Kimberly Morris, an attorney for victims of the Camp fire, said after court. “The concern is that PG&E might be missing critical issues that affect the safety of the community they serve.”

Alsup said the news was not all bad. He repeatedly praised the company for carrying out controversial public safety power shutoffs.

“The (shutoffs) saved lives, there’s no doubt about it,” he said, noting that some 360 trees fell on wires during the shutoffs, which likely prevented dozens of wildfires from breaking out.

“It would have been catastrophic, that’s how bad PG&E’s vegetation management has been,” he said, noting that there was not a single distribution line-sparked fire. “That’s a dramatic improvement.”

Still, Orsini warned that shutoffs will likely continue for “many years to come,” even after the company finishes its promised intensive vegetation management efforts. He said that could take eight years, but still would not prevent fires being sparked when strong winds topple trees far from power lines.

“The reality is, no amount of vegetation management work…will take away the need” for shutoffs, Orsini told the judge.  

But Alsup said he was convinced that cutting trees properly would reduce the need for shutoffs as he pressed the company to move forward and not just tout the progress so far. .

“You are way behind – PG&E poses a threat to the safety of the people of California because you are so far behind,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, however, Alsup put off deciding on whether to order PG&E bonuses be tied to safety, as well as his threatened order that PG&E be made to hire its own tree trimmers to meet compliance promises it has not lived up to so far.

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