While it has made “sustained and substantial progress” on gas safety, PG&E has clearly not made enough headway in measures designed to prevent wildfires during its five-year probation term stemming from the San Bruno gas explosion, according to the final findings of the court-appointed monitor over the utility.
At the end of next month, the utility is set to finish its probation term ordered after it was convicted in federal court for pipeline safety violations following the 2010 pipeline rupture that destroyed an entire neighborhood and left eight dead.
Although crediting the company for making headway in gas safety, the monitor said the company’s “progress regarding wildfire mitigation obviously has been inadequate.”
“We doubt anyone would seriously contend that PG&E’s performance has been even adequate, or that substantial improvement is not still imperative, given the staggering losses of life and property caused by recent wildfires,” the monitor’s final report concluded.
While on federal probation, PG&E has been blamed for the Wine Country fires in 2017, the 2018 Camp fire, the 2019 Kincade Fire, the 2020 Zogg fire as well as this year’s 1-million-acre Dixie fire. On Thursday, the CPUC approved a $125 million penalty against the company over the Kincade fire.
“PG&E’s initial steps in the wake of recent catastrophic fires were not planned and executed well,” the monitor said in the report. “However, some of the key leaders who drove improvements in Gas Operations are now working on wildfire efforts, and hopefully they can drive similar positive change going forward.”
The report highlighted several recent safety lapses found by monitor inspectors during field checks, providing photos of significantly rotted, heavily leaning and obviously dead trees that pose a clear hazard near powerlines. The monitor also included a photo of a power pole so damaged by woodpeckers that you could look through it. The report stressed the need for PG&E to retain core management so as to maintain its long-term plan to bolster wildfire prevention efforts.
PG&E said in a statement Thursday that it continues to welcome the monitor’s feedback, “recognizing that it brings us closer to our shared goal of keeping customers, communities, and coworkers safe.”
The utility said it believes it is “a fundamentally safer company” under five years of court stewardship, while acknowledging “we have more work to do.”
State regulators are preparing to hire a new independent safety monitor, at PG&E shareholders’ expense, to oversee the utility for five more years. The budget is expected to be about $5 million a year.
But critics are skeptical about what will happen when a court is no longer keeping watch. Former CPUC president Loretta Lynch says the loss of court oversight “is the thing that worries me the most.”
“When the probation ends, there will be no independent, from my perspective, or non co-opted entity that is overseeing PG&E.”
Will Abrams, who has become a safety advocate after his home was destroyed in the Tubbs fire in 2017, agreed that more needs to be done to make up for the void that will be created with the loss of the court oversight.
“We’re not having the type of oversight that is needed,” he said, “and it's really a recipe for disaster.”
Abrams has petitioned the judge overseeing PG&E’s probation, asking U.S. Judge William Alsup to hold a hearing soon on whether to compel the utility to draw up plans for long term structural changes.
But so far, Alsup has been reluctant, even has he has repeatedly faulted the company for safety lapses. He recently reminded Abrams that the court only so much time to consider additional conditions to the company’s probation, given that he cannot legally extend the term beyond the end of January.